When the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent (PHM) closed its doors to the public in July 2018, talks began about finding a new home for its collection of over 130,000 artifacts of city history. It was likely the most time that many had spent thinking about the quiet little institution on 7th Street.
Although many native Philadelphians hold fond memories of school trips to the PHM, the vast majority of tourists and residents never entered its doors. In 2017, the museum’s annual attendance of 20,000 was a tiny fraction of those for the Philadelphia Museum of Art (768,000), Franklin Institute (1,050,000), or the Liberty Bell Center (2,200,000). Even the new kid on the block, the Museum of the American Revolution, received more than ten times the number of visitors in the seven months in 2017 it was open.
Situated in the shadow of Philly’s premiere tourist attraction, Independence National Historical Park, the PHM, a City-owned entity, has also long been overshadowed in the municipal budget by flashier assets and more urgent concerns.
With a major renovation in 2012 failing to turn things around, and City investment continuing to decline, the PHM board of trustees began seeking a partner that could offer financial, curatorial, and technological expertise in keeping the collection intact, accessible, and in Philadelphia. After initial conversations with Temple University, they decided Drexel University was the likely partner.
A plan to transfer the collection to Drexel was presented at a public meeting in February 2019. It focused on digitizing the collection for online viewing and creating a loan program to museums and educational institutions. Initial reaction included concern about losing the museum as a central location for showcasing Philadelphia history, especially the periods before and after the Revolutionary War.
City officials, PHM’s board of trustees, and Drexel representatives tweaked the plan based on over 100 comments they solicited after releasing the proposal. According to David Rasner, chairman of the PHM Board of Trustees, many respondents asked about the transfer plan and future access to the collection.
Although it was clear the City would not entertain alternate plans, there was a willingness to make some changes based on the input received. On Tuesday, September 10 a second public meeting was held at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Branch to present some of the changes and seek further input.
The presentation described two committees that will coordinate the work of the transfer. A Collection Evaluation Committee will appraise the artifacts in terms of monetary value and relevance to Philadelphia history. Then, a Transition Oversight Committee will consider what to keep, what will be deaccessioned, and design the loan program.
Some public comments expressed that a program to loan out individual items was not a substitute for full exhibits open to the public. Rosalind Remer, Drexel University vice provost and executive director of the school’s Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships, agreed it had not been adequately addressed. “We have the ability and will mount exhibits on Drexel’s campus,” she said.
Remer also acknowledged that the choice of Drexel, a private institution, as the recipient of an extensive public asset was a frequent concern. In response, Derek Gillman, Drexel’s senior adviser to the president for University Collections, noted, “The majority of America’s treasures are owned by private, not-for-profit organizations.”
Many respondents asked what would happen to the collection if, in the future, Drexel no longer wanted it or doesn’t provide the access and services as agreed. In response, a reversionary clause was added to the plan, in which the City of Philadelphia could petition Orphans’ Court and the Pennsylvania Attorney General to retake possession.
A centerpiece of the plan revolves around the digitization of the entire collection, accessible online. Gillman said the aim is “to enable people of all backgrounds to curate their own collection.”
That was not an adequate substitute for those at the meeting mourning the loss of the physical museum, often fondly recalling childhood school visits. Kelly Lee, the city’s chief cultural officer, cast it as a generational thing, maintaining the virtual approach is necessary to stay relevant. “The new generation doesn’t feel like they have to be in the presence of something to appreciate it.”
At the meeting, virtually all of the questions and comments came from professionals in the museum, educational, or cultural fields. One lone commentator, a city resident, declared the collection belonged to the citizens and “it’s being taken away from us.” It was also the only comment that elicited no response from the officials on the panel, however it did receive a smattering of applause from the audience.
The fate of one particular item was raised by Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia: the museum’s Greek Revival building at 15 South 7th Street, the original home of the Franklin Institute. It was designed by John Haviland, whose other buildings include Eastern State Penitentiary, the Walnut Street Theater, and Dorrance Hamilton Hall at the University of the Arts, originally the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.
“The building is critically important to the city,” Lee assured Steinke, adding, “It’s not up to the City.” She explained that the 1938 deed that transferred the building to the City stipulated that ownership would revert back to the Atwater Kent Foundation if Philadelphia ceased to use it for a city history museum. The foundation, based in Gloucester, Massachusetts, gives small grants to an array of cultural and civic organizations and still includes members of Atwater Kent’s family.
After formally incorporating the discussed changes to the plan, it will go to the City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent Board of Trustees, and the Drexel University Board of Trustees for approval, then on to Orphans’ Court. The City has funded a five-year plan to implement the transfer.