Publicly-Owned Philly History Handed Over to Private University

May 6, 2022 | by Kimberly Haas

The Philadelphia Museum officially closed to the public in 2018. The museum’s collection of 130,000 artifacts have officially been transferred to Drexel University. The fate of the building on 7th Street has yet to be determined. | Photo: Michael Bixler

After two public meetings, two court hearings, and several calls for public input, this week Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper in the Orphans’ Court division of Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas approved the petition from the City to transfer the collection of the shuttered Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent to Drexel University.

Formerly known as the Atwater Kent Museum, the institution suffered for years from stagnant and declining financial support from the City and a low profile, despite being located close to some of Philadelphia’s biggest attractions, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

The museum was founded by a 1938 gift from the radio manufacturer A. Atwater Kent. His charitable foundation, the Atwater Kent Foundation, acquired the former home of the Franklin Institute at 13-17 North 7th Street and offered it to the City if it used the building for a museum.

In the ordinance establishing the museum, the City agreed to make appropriations from time to time “for the proper supervision, maintenance, upkeep and extension of the aforesaid museum and building.” Under the Home Rule Charter, the museum was placed under the financial oversight of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

According to the ordinance, the original collection came from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), city-owned items located at City Hall, and other sources. Over time, items were added from the Commercial Museum at the Civic Center, the Friends Historical Association (FHA), CIGNA Insurance Company, the Curtis Publishing Museum, the Historical Collection of Broadcast Pioneers, among others. Since the museum’s inception, the collection has increased to more than 133,000 artifacts.

Portrait of Lapowinsa and Portrait of Tishcohan, 1730 by painter Gustavus Hesselius. | Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The petition indicates 60 objects from the Atwater Kent collection are currently on loan. The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) has important objects from the collection for its new exhibition galleries displaying early American art: the “Wampum Belt” reputedly given by the Leni Lenape indigenous people to William Penn, Benjamin West’s portrait of Thomas Mifflin, and two of the earliest paintings of New World indigenous people by Gustavus Hesselius in the 1730s: Portrait of Lapowinsa and Portrait of Tishcohan, two of the Lenape chiefs who sold their land to the sons of William Penn through the controversial and disputed Walking Purchase treaty agreement of 1737.

The museum also owns two paintings by Charles Willson Peale: his 1770 portrait of John Dickinson, valued at $600,000 and on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and his 1824 portrait of Joseph Bonaparte, currently at The Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

Another valuable item in the collection is Joseph Wright’s 1784 portrait of George Washington, estimated at $900,000 and currently on loan to the Museum of the American Revolution.

Beyond paintings, the collection also includes a range of iconic items related to the breadth of Philadelphia’s history, from George Washington’s original presidential desk, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capitol, to world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves. In between are thousands of items that tell the story of the city’s neighborhoods, industries, and life over more than three centuries.

The collection also includes archival materials such as glass negatives and prints of
early motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge, Norman Rockwell’s Saturday
Evening Post covers, photojournalist Neil Benson’s massive photographic collection of Philadelphia scenes and people, the papers of the Strawbridge & Clothier department store, and the Depression-era WPA Museum Extension Project photographs of Philadelphia.

A portrait of George Washington by Joseph Wright and John Trumbull, 1784-1786. | Image courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society

Philadelphia officials had been seeking a partner to manage the museum and its collection since 2015. Several institutions were considered, and three in particular–PMA, the Woodmere Art Museum, and Temple University–were seriously pursued, however ultimately unsuccessful. 

Finally, the City proposed turning stewardship of the collection over to Drexel University to, officials claim, give it a home where it can be properly preserved and presented. Others believe the City is giving a private entity a priceless history of the city that belongs to the public.

After entering into discussions with Drexel, City officials and representatives from the university held two public meetings in 2019 to first present a draft, and then a revision, of their proposal.

While Drexel does not currently operate a museum, the petition notes that it has four galleries and several collections within its schools, such as an archive on the history of women in medicine in its College of Medicine and portraits and other artwork in the Drexel Collection, in addition to having established an affiliation with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 2011.

While the long (264 page) petition was short on details of what Drexel will do with the collection, it did mention a plan to evaluate the inventory to determine what to keep and what to eliminate, or deaccession, in museum parlance.

A portrait of Stephen Smith, an antislavery activist and agent on the Underground Railroad, from 1850 by artist James Stidun. | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Often, gifts to museums come with strings attached, limitations in case the recipient no longer wants the item. The petition says there are only a few objects that are restricted from sale and none that would be required to be reversioned, or returned to a donor.

If Drexel wishes to remove an item from the collection, it proposes to offer to give it to a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia. If none want it, Drexel will be free to sell the item, but will use the proceeds for the maintenance of the collection.

Although several of the collection’s donating organizations no longer exist, like the Commercial Museum, some do. And while the terms of their gifts may not have included restrictions, there still could be an interest in the disposition of the gifts.

At both hearings, the HSP petitioned to intervene. Both were denied, with the judge permitting their testimony, but not allowing them to cross-examine witnesses. “We have a right in the proceeds of any sale that occurs,” stated HSP attorney Thomas Johnson, referring to a 2009 agreement with the PHM.

Other potentially interested parties have taken a less official approach, such as the Friends Historical Association, which loaned some items to the PHM in the 1940s, subsequently converting it to a gift in 1987. “Probably the best-known item in our gift is a pair of Black dolls in Quaker clothing,” said Celia Caust-Ellenbogen, archivist of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College and co-president of the FHA. “Also examples of free produce cotton, which Quakers in the 19th century favored, as they boycotted products made by slave labor.”

“When this plan was put forth in 2019, we did research into our records to understand what the gift was and the terms,” she recalled. “We met with the Drexel people, who provided a basic inventory.”

Elks Lodge banner from 1900 for the Octavius V. Catto Lodge No. 20. | Photo courtesy of African American Collections, Philadelphia History Museum

She said FHA was concerned about how Drexel might handle deaccessioning. “There are a lot of artifacts in the collection that have significance to Quakers, but not necessarily to Philadelphia,” she explained. “We asked them that, if they want to deaccession anything from the FHA gift, could they contact us first. We don’t have a physical location, but our board members represent organizations that do.” Drexel agreed in principle, although it hasn’t been formalized, she noted.

In February, the petition was addressed in an Orphans Court hearing, with Administrative Judge Woods-Skipper presiding. As in the two prior public presentations, several public comments during the hearing focused on the loss to the people of Philadelphia, in terms of both ownership and access. “What’s lost is that there will be no cohesive story,” commented HSP President David Brigham.

Immediately prior to the February hearing, historian Ken Finkel wrote in an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “If Drexel becomes the next owner of Philadelphia’s history, what does it owe the public?”

Woods-Skipper repeatedly pushed back on a key point in the City’s and Drexel’s claim that the actual, detailed transfer agreement could not be drawn up until after the collection was transferred. “What would be the downside of creating the transfer agreement before coming to the court to request deviation from the trusteeship?” she asked. “As we all know, the devil is in the details.”

Finally, she made it clear she would not make a ruling without the final transfer agreement. When asked how long that might take, the City’s attorney stated they would need two to three weeks. The judge gave them three weeks, with a requirement to solicit public comment as well.

Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves. | Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia History Museum

A second hearing was held on April 27. In addition to presenting a transfer agreement, the City and Drexel announced they had signed a letter of intent with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to rent space in its Hamilton Building to store the collection and provide offices and room for research.

Woods-Skipper continued to have questions and concerns about some remaining lack of details, such as an exhibition plan, loan program guidelines, and endowment needs. On most of these points the Drexel contingent demurred, citing the need for flexibility in a fiduciary agreement intended to last in perpetuity. “I don’t see the merit. Standards change,” said Derek Gillman, Drexel’s Executive Director of University Collections and Exhibitions.

Although the agreement calls for the creation of an oversight committee for the collection, its 13 members would have a Drexel-appointed majority of seven, with the City appointing four and the AKF two. Testimony confirmed the position that Drexel, as the sole trustee, would be the final arbiter on all aspects of the collection.

The judge once again declined to issue a ruling, asking the parties to address her final concerns, modify the agreement, and resubmit it, stating that she would reach a decision quickly and without further hearings.

On May 3, Woods-Skipper granted the City’s petition to deviate from the provisions of the Atwater Kent Museum Collection Trust and to substitute Drexel University as the new trustee of the collection.

The fate of the museum’s building is not clear at this point. The petition before Orphans’ Court covers only the collection.

The former Franklin Institute at 15 S. 7th Street was completed in 1826 and designed by John Haviland. The Atwater Kent Museum took over the building in 1941. | Photo courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

According to the terms of the 1938 gift, if the City ceases to use the building for a museum, the Atwater Kent Foundation has the option to reclaim ownership of the property. In June 2021, an attorney for the AKF wrote a letter in support of the transfer, while still reserving “all rights and remedies to which the Foundation was entitled” under the 1938 Ordinance.

Today, the AKF lists its location as a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley. Each year, its four trustees, all from the Atwater Kent family, give hundreds of small grants to charitable organizations, frequently with a focus on LGBTQ rights, outdoor education, and animal welfare.

The building is itself a significant piece of Philadelphia history. It was designed by one of the most prominent architects in the city in the early-to-mid-19th century, John Haviland, whose other noteworthy buildings include Eastern State Penitentiary and the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf & Dumb, now Dorrance Hall of the University of the Arts. Built in 1825, it was the first home of the Franklin Institute. It is included in the Historic American Buildings Survey and is on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.


About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.


  1. Brenda Bonhomme says:

    While the proper management of this resource is essential, I wonder if the recent significant gift made to the Museum of American History offers a more integrated solution.

  2. Gregory Hubbard says:

    ‘The fate of the building on 7th Street has yet to be determined.’ Huh? The ‘..building…’ That’s a thuggish way to describe a major American landmark.

    ‘The Fate of the building…’ Just what does that mean? Why not leave it as a museum building? Perhaps restore it to it’s earliest years, as many consider it to be the first purpose-built museum building in America.

    With Philadelphia’s history of the preservation of Haviland buildings, perhaps they will save the front 5′ and build a highrise behind it.

    Like another distinguished Haviland building facadectomy, they wouldn’t even need to put the windows back.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Good article, though a couple of misstatements — the “original collection” DID NOT come from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP)… the ordinance refers to objects STORED at HSP, not owned by HSP. The object collections from HSP were transferred to the AKM at the turn of this century. And the Dickinson portrait is at the National Portrait Gallery.

  4. Davis d'Ambly says:

    The museum building, formerly a bank as I recall, is very fine and it would be a tragedy to lose it. We have already lost the contents it seems in this curious, hurried exchange. Why would anyone; foundation or person, wish to donate to such institutions in the future?

    A sad affair.

  5. Lorraine says:

    The City of Philadelphia is losing out on a valuable tourism magnet. This 300+ year old city is worth preserving all of it’s history, not just colonial era, as this author mentions. Drexel will hopefully do the right actions moving forward

  6. The Philadelphia Museum Collection includes the Balch Institute Collection of Ethnic Studies which became a part of the Atwater Kent Museum in 2002. It documents the history of over 60 ethnicities contributing to our City’s formation.

  7. James says:

    I have wondered why UPENN never made a bid for the historical collection which went to Drexel.

    It would have been interesting to see what would UPENN have offered to be able to host the collection. I know the current building serving as museum for the city’s collection may not be considered but what if UPENN was willing to disassemble and reinstall the current museum building on their land?

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