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Drexel in talks to acquire collection of Philadelphia History Museum, closing the building for good

The museum building on 7th Street, formerly the Atwater Kent, is now empty. Its last staff member resigned last month.

A bust of Nicholas Biddle (left) in storage. It has been on view at the Philadelphia History Museum on South Seventh Street, but has spent much of the last decade in storage.
A bust of Nicholas Biddle (left) in storage. It has been on view at the Philadelphia History Museum on South Seventh Street, but has spent much of the last decade in storage.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia History Museum, the institution mandated by the city charter to serve as a repository of things made, owned, and associated with the city — everything from William Penn’s wampum belt to Jimmy Rollins’ spikes — is in talks that would see the massive collection transferred to the stewardship of Drexel University, with the closure and possible sale of the museum building.

According to Drexel, museum, and city officials, the university would oversee pruning the vast number of objects — there are more than 100,000 items in the collection — to a “manageable” size, digitizing the whole kit and kaboodle, and making it all available online, suitable for searching by institutions in need of loans or those seeking to mount new exhibitions.

The history museum, established by a 1938 ordinance, and then incorporated into the city’s governing charter, suspended operations last June, in the wake of a reduction in city financial support and the withdrawal of Temple University from partnership talks. Since 1941, the museum had been located at 15 S. Seventh St., a neoclassical building designed by John Haviland in 1821 to be the first home of the Franklin Institute.

The building was acquired by radio manufacturer A. Atwater Kent and then donated to the city — with the proviso that it remain a museum. If not, the Kent family would have the option of taking the building back.

Since the museum’s June closure, all 450 or so artifacts in the building — including George Washington’s presidential desk, a Benjamin Franklin drinking glass, Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves, and paintings by Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin West, and others — have been removed to a climate-controlled storage facility.

At the end of January, Charles Croce, the only remaining employee, resigned as director and chief executive.

“It was the right moment for me,” Croce said Tuesday. “I think the collection is secure. The goal of the board is to keep the collection here, and I think they’re meeting that.”

David Rasner, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said Tuesday that “what we’re seeking to do is preserve the collection for the citizens and institutions” of Philadelphia.

“Drexel stepped to the plate and offered to become a repository for the collection, to go through the collection to see what is relevant and what is not, to care for the collection, and to become a lending library for it,” Rasner said.

Drexel’s plan is not carved in stone, but the possibility of the university’s assumption of control is now being reviewed by the state attorney general’s Office of Charitable Trusts. If the Drexel plan is eventually approved by Orphans' Court, which has jurisdiction over nonprofits, it could lead to a radical rethinking of how the city presents its own history and, indeed, its own identity.

The evolving plan will be presented at a public meeting at the National Constitution Center on Feb. 27 for comment and feedback.

“We are excited about a potential partnership with the museum and Drexel University to ensure that the entire collection is available to more people than ever before,” City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said in an email Tuesday. “The city is committed to ensuring Philadelphia’s history through the museum’s collection is accessible to the public and remains within Philadelphia and the region.”

Abernathy said no final decisions will be made until after the Feb. 27 meeting.

Officials at Drexel envision the plan as a kind of pathway to democratization of history, which would return things made and held by the city’s residents and businesses, back to neighborhood schools, libraries, and even shopping malls.

There would be no “history museum” as a stand-alone structure. Instead, the city’s history, as embodied by an incredible array of objects, could flow anywhere.

For instance, a dramatic and colorful horse-drawn cart used for deliveries from Strawbridge & Clothier, with the department store’s name emblazoned on the side, might be exhibited at Liberty Place or King of Prussia Mall, or some other shopping venue.

“What was in the museum [building] was the tip of the iceberg and wasn’t really used in telling Philadelphia’s story,” said Rosalind Remer, Drexel’s vice provost and executive director of the Drexel University Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships, who is overseeing the museum plans.

“The museum [building] is so small it could only scratch the surface," Remer said. "We’re interested in how we can get as much as possible out into the city of Philadelphia, making it available not just to museums. Why shouldn’t people be seeing it at the airport or in library branches or rec centers?”

While the plan has not been made public and is still evolving, concerned city residents have worried about the possibility of sales from the collection — something that has happened in the past.

Remer said that nothing of value or of relevance to Philadelphia’s story will be pruned out. She said Drexel has a strict policy regarding collection sales, or deaccessioning in museum parlance, and adheres to the strictest guidelines of the American Association of Museums, which bars sales for any reason other than acquisitions or direct care of a collection.

Page Talbott, former president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, has been organizing and reviewing the vast holdings. She said that about 150 pieces of furniture, all virtually without documentation and consisting of pieces widely seen in mid-20th-century department stores, had been identified for deaccessioning.

All the pieces had been reviewed by a special committee of historians and curators, she said, and all had been offered gratis to area museums and historic houses (some were accepted). The remaining pieces were then approved for deaccessioning by the museum board. None has been sold as yet, she said.

“Drexel is committed to do the best thing to keep this collection viable,” Talbott said. “The stuff isn’t just going to the auction block en masse.”

Yet the lack of available public information about the history museum and its collection during the eight months since it closed has sparked fears about what may happen.

“What the heck is going on?” wondered Ken Finkel, a professor of history at Temple University. “You can feel the frustration.”

William R. Valerio, director and chief executive of Woodmere Art Museum, which explored a partnership with the history museum in 2015 but ultimately bowed out, said the museum and the city have an obligation to the public.

“Transparency is of the highest importance,” Valerio said. “The collection exists because good people like Atwater Kent gave great treasures to be shared with the public. ... It is owed to the public to be transparent about the disposition of the collection.”

Rasner, the history museum board president, said: “I do believe in transparency. Frankly I did not want to give out wrong information. Better no information than bad information. I do believe the public has a right to information.”