On Monday, a hearing will be held in Philadelphia Orphans’ Court to decide who owns the city’s history.
Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper will be tasked with ruling whether the City of Philadelphia, owner of the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum — more than 100,000 artifacts and artworks now in storage — can walk away from it all.
The city, legally obligated to care for the collection under an agreement made with radio magnate and donor A. Atwater Kent, doesn’t want the hassle nor the expense of maintaining and storing Joe Frazer’s boxing gloves or John Wanamaker’s boardroom throne or anything else amidst what one historian has called “a goldmine of stuff.”
The collection began as a gift by Kent to the city in 1938, and was housed in another Kent gift — the neoclassical first home of the Franklin Institute on South Seventh Street — until the city pulled virtually all funding and the museum doors permanently closed in 2018.
“History is just not thriving anymore,” Jeffrey Benoliel, vice president of the Philadelphia History Museum’s board of trustees, said in an interview Saturday.
Enter Drexel University. Drexel offered to take the entire collection off the city’s hands, prune it, digitize it, endow it, give it a visible online presence, and turn the physical objects into a kind of lending library. Philadelphia’s past could be made manifest in various sites around the city, such as neighborhood rec centers and libraries, and in major institutions, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
All that was deemed necessary to make the deal a reality was for the city to transfer ownership of the objects to the university.
Problem solved, it would seem: The city off-loads an expensive responsibility, Drexel picks up a valuable asset, and the collection is democratized in various ways, reaching more city residents in neighborhoods all over town.
Now “after nearly three years of hard work by the [museum] trustees, city, and Drexel to develop a plan that protects the collection and makes it more accessible to the public, it’s time to move forward,” a city spokeswoman said in an email Friday.
But a number of objections have emerged in recent months and some major critics, including several historians and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, are now challenging whether the agreement has been adequately thought through. Should the city simply give away one of its most valuable assets, critics ask. Is it appropriate to transfer a literally priceless collection from public ownership to a private entity such as Drexel?
No one has ever even attempted to put a price tag on this massive collection as a whole, a virtually impossible task. How do you assess the value of Jimmy Rollins’ spikes or Benjamin Franklin’s drinking cup?
And is the public prepared to surrender control over the wampum belt given to William Penn by the Lenape in 1682 or the elaborate mahogany desk that belonged to George Washington as he labored in the President’s House to create a new nation? Is the city ready and able to properly say farewell to paintings by Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin West, and Thomas Sully?
And can the city even do this and abide by the law and the city charter?
“I think it is clear that the city intends to ignore [City] Council and I believe that it is illegal to proceed without the passage of a Council ordinance preceded by requisite hearings,” said lawyer Mark Zecca, who, as a former city solicitor, represented the Philadelphia Art Commission and Philadelphia Historical Commission. Zecca said that the art commission also must review the plan, as “required by the charter.”
”By ignoring the art commission ... the city is cutting off an important required method by which citizens may challenge government action and hold government to the law,” said Zecca.
The Orphans’ Court hearing will mark the first actual public hearing on the transfer. The city and Drexel have presided over public meetings, for sure, but not once has the city engaged the courts, regulatory bodies or City Council.
But Orphans’ Court, a division of Common Pleas Court responsible for hearing many issues revolving around estates and nonprofits, has jurisdiction in the matter. It will be asked to approve a plan that would dissolve the city’s obligation to own and care for what is often described in the media as “the city’s attic.”
City Council enacted legislation to facilitate the deal, and the Atwater Kent Museum was created as a repository of Philadelphia’s “material culture,” a role affirmed by the city’s foundational document — the Philadelphia Home Rule charter. Such was the beginning of a long decline.
By 2019, the museum was virtually cut out of the city budget and talks to affiliate with Woodmere Art Museum and then Temple University collapsed.
“The city has said to us, ‘We’re going to reduce our commitment to the museum,’” director and CEO Charles Croce said at the time. “We have to suspend museum operations.”
In the wake of the closure, Drexel stepped in and has now posted a 264-page plan on the Philadelphia History Museum’s website addressing how the transfer from public to private ownership would be carried out.
“The plan the trustees and city are proposing would keep the remarkable Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent collection together, in Philadelphia, under a single trusteeship for the benefit of Philadelphia’s citizens. It will make the collection more accessible to Philadelphians than it has ever been before, and it will place the collection under the care of Drexel University’s highly trained museum professionals,” according to the city spokeswoman.
Critics of the plan say not so fast. At the least they argue that the Orphans’ Court hearing is premature. The transfer plan is “not a plan,” said historian Kenneth Finkel of Temple University.
He argues that all the difficult decisions are put off until a deal receives the court’s approval and Drexel is in charge.
The current transfer plan, in Finkel’s view, says, “When we get ownership, we will elaborate on all these things on storage and financial and access,” he said.
“We’re not saying we’re against Drexel. We’re against the document as currently constructed,” Finkel said. “They mention endowment. Well, OK, how much of an endowment and by what years? Are we talking about a two-year process to raise $2 million or a 10-year process to raise money? We don’t know.”
The “issue of the deaccessioning,” museum parlance for removing items from a collection by sale or gift, is not spelled out, Finkel says.
Of course, such deaccessioning has a rich history written in the museum’s own sales receipts. Thousands of dollars have been raised by such sales. In 2009, for instance, the public museum sold off a highly unusual Raphaelle Peale still life for $700,000 — to help pay for a new HVAC system.
The sale was heavily criticized as violating standards of ethical stewardship.
That Peale still life came to the Philadelphia History Museum when the Historical Society of Pennsylvania announced it was becoming a library and archive and no longer would care for 3D objects.
It then transferred 10,000 objects to the history museum in 1999, and subsequently received half the cut on any sales.
Now the historical society is seeking to participate in the court hearing, arguing that because of its past association with the Atwater Kent, HSP has a “vested interest” in the proceedings.
“We made the gift of 10,000 items on the assurance that the museum was healthy and viable and that the city would continue to support it. The charter requires the city to support it,” said the head of HSP, David Brigham. “We still have property rights in the collection. If the city does sell something, half of the proceeds come to HSP. So, you know, to us that indicates that we’re still a party to the collection — at least to the HSP collection, which is arguably among the most culturally significant and the most financially valuable dimension of the [history museum] collection.”
In support of its position, HSP lists artifacts in its “core collection,” including a gold box made by Charles LeRoux and given to Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton by New York’s Common Council in gratitude for Hamilton’s defense of newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger.
For some reason, the box was never transferred from HSP to the museum in 1999, and in 2020. the historical society put the so-called Freedom Box up for sale, arguing that HSP is a library not a museum.
When the Atwater Kent sold off the Raphaelle Peale and other artworks a decade ago or more, it argued that it was a history museum, not an art gallery.
In the end, said museum board vice president Benoliel, money is largely at the root of the problem — lack of money hampered the museum and the city, seemingly for decades. Now Drexel is trying to raise money to support something it does not yet own with no sugar daddy in sight.
Raising private funds is made all the more difficult simply because Drexel does not own the collection, Benoliel said.
“To raise private money you need to transfer ownership,” he said.