Citing operating deficits and a lack of financial stability, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania announced Monday that it would lay off 10 staff members, about 30 percent of the total, trim programming and services, and focus on its role as a library and archive.
In a statement, board chairman Bruce K. Fenton said the hope was that by eliminating jobs, the organization would buy time for "a period of financial recovery and careful planning for its future.”
The society, at 13th and Locust Streets, has been seeking to partner with an academic institution for about three years. Extensive talks with the University of Pennsylvania did not bear fruit, but over the last year and a half, the society has been discussing affiliation with Drexel University.
Those talks have gone slowly — more slowly than anticipated, at least by society officials — and sources close to the matter said Drexel was proceeding with caution after digging into the society’s financial situation.
Charles T. Cullen, the society’s interim president and chief executive, said that the effort to partner continues.
“Our active interest in forming a close alliance with an academic institution has not ended, but the protracted nature of the exploration was unexpected, and has contributed to a lack of clarity as to our recently adopted mission,” Cullen said, referring to the society’s partnering efforts, and its expanded programming and services.
“The combination of uncertain mission and continuing transition mode has created a challenging fundraising atmosphere, leading to operating deficits and increasing difficulty in achieving financial stability,” Cullen said.
The society’s operating budget is about $3 million, Cullen said, and the operating deficit is at $400,000 for the fiscal year.
Founded in 1824, the society houses over 600,000 printed items and nearly 20 million manuscripts. It had a staff of about 34 or 35 before the layoffs, Cullen said.
“With a leaner team in place, we will be refocusing our efforts on the core of our mission: serving as a research library and archive,” Cullen said.
Pennsylvania Legacies, HSP’s biannual public history magazine, will cease publication after the spring 2019 edition. But library hours, grant projects, and publication of the scholarly journal the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography will continue.
The cuts come only a little over a month after a public meeting at the National Constitution Center focusing on the fate of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. The city cut funding for the history museum on South Seventh Street less than a year ago and the museum closed last summer.
In 1999, the historical society agreed to transfer its collection of 10,000 artworks and artifacts to what was then known as the Atwater Kent Museum, in a bid, officials said at the time, to fashion the historical society into an archive and library.
Now, the museum is seeking to transfer its collection to Drexel, with which the society wants to partner. The common thread is not so much Drexel, but the inability of either the society or the museum to build significant independent revenue streams in an era of declining public funding and, perhaps, declining public interest.
Cullen said the society’s debt has not been an issue in the talks with Drexel. A spokesperson for Drexel could not be reached for comment Monday evening.
“I do know that Drexel is still looking at our financial situation, and Drexel has known our financial situation from the beginning,” Cullen said. “Drexel is not assuming any debt we have.”
Cullen said he came to the society on an interim basis to manage the institution through to some kind of partnership. That hasn’t happened. Without a partner, he said, the implementation of expanded programming and services had to be scaled back.
“We needed to pull back and focus on our primary function,” he said. “Being a library.”
“We’re nowhere near” where the Philadelphia History Museum was, Cullen said. "We need to put more emphasis on the core mission of this institution rather than trying to find a partner. "