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.
I was the lone dissenter who spoke up against the transfer plan, and although my comments were met with silence, a flock of people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for speaking up and expressing their views. I was also contacted by some major players in Philadelphia’s cultural scene who supported my view, though they did not say so publicly. I believe some museum professionals are declining to speak because the Drexel juggernaut is seen as a fait accompli. The Kenny administration made it clear a long time ago that they want to dump this collection and don’t much mind where it ends up. It is inaccurate to say that a final proposal has been presented, because the only proposal on the PHM website is the one that was posted there last February. One wonders if the actual agreement will be made available to the public before it is executed by Kenny, PHM and Drexel.
Kenny is giving away a collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars to an institution that is a relative newcomer to the cultural scene in Philadelphia. As to Drexel’s reliability as custodian of this priceless treasure, only one comment says it all: Hahnemann Hospital.
You’re entire argument is made invalid by directing any criticism of Drexel to Hahnemann. The only link to Hahnemann for Drexel was a partnership for the placement of the DUCOM residents. They did not own or run the hospital, and the decline of the hospital is own the parent organization that owns it. What you can point to is the Legacy Center, which is a Drexel special collection that houses the archival history of Hahnemann Hospital. They are also an award winning institution for their access to those materials.
Also, Drexel is a newcomer to the cultural scene if you consider late 19th century as new.
The closing of the museum is sad and unfortunate, but all of this dissent is coming from people who have zero experience working in or running a cultural institution. Any institution that wants to take this own and expand access beyond the >1% that the PHM was offering with their stale exhibitions, then I applaud that.
Thank you for speaking up Francis.
A major player in what’s left of Philadelphia’s cultural scene told me ” Philadelphia stole the Barnes and gave up its own history. Since they only think in (tourist) dollars and cents they believe they’re coming out way ahead”.
Thank you for pointing out the attendance differences between institutions. Everyone is sad that the museum is closing, but conveniently overlooks the attendance numbers that make staying open unsustainable.
Shame on the City of Philadelphia for closing this museum! To quote from the article, “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.’ ” If that is true, then why does the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Franklin Institute, the new Museum of the American Revolution, and other mentioned in the article attract millions of visitors each year?
Clearly Kelly Lee and Mayor Kelly are out of touch with the data.
Perhaps the Philadelphia History Museum was not managed as well as it should have? Or should it have been moved to another venue — like the remodeled Free Library Building? I do know that when I would visit, the displays for the most part did not change, and much exhibit space was given to covers designed by Norman Rockwell.
Shame on the city!
The Museum of the American Revolution is under 500,000 a year and it’s numbers dipped last year.
This is 100% correct
“The new generation doesn’t feel like they have to be in the presence of something to appreciate it.”
I just learned of the closing of the museum. I have artifacts including many printers blocks, beautifully engraved, that I would have liked to donate. These were used in the publication, Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter, in the mid to late 19th century. They show businesses, buildings, RR sidings, and machinery used in the manufacturing of the above in Philadelphia. What a shame they won’t have a proper home.
the city should of openedthe court building next to the main library for use as a phiadelphi mueum. I think we misseda great opertunity.