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Drexel acquires Philly’s history

The city has transferred ownership of its "priceless" history museum collection to Drexel, one of the largest transfers of public to private ownership in memory

David Rasner, chairman of the board of trustees at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, addresses a public meeting on the fate of the Atwater Kent collection at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday evening, Feb. 27, 2019.
David Rasner, chairman of the board of trustees at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, addresses a public meeting on the fate of the Atwater Kent collection at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday evening, Feb. 27, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia Orphans’ Court has approved the end of city-owned history, authorizing a plan to transfer ownership of the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum to Drexel University, ending the 84-year life of the city’s Atwater Kent Museum.

Philadelphia, which has made a national brand out of its rich three centuries of history, will no longer have a history museum devoted to its autobiography.

The desk used by President George Washington when he helped create the nation from the President’s House at Sixth and High Streets will no longer be available for exhibition at the city’s discretion. Nor will the soft, fedora-like hat Abraham Lincoln wore as he sneaked through the city “in disguise” on the way to his 1861 inauguration. It will no longer own the wampum belt given to William Penn, or Jimmy Rollins’ Phillies jersey or a lunch booth from Lil Pete’s diner on South 17th Street.

“These things are priceless,” said historian Frank Hoeber, a critic of the deal. “I’m not just talking about George Washington’s desk. There are paintings related to historic issues that can never be seen again and whose story has never been told, you know? This is not Philadelphia history, it is American history.”

The agreement approved by Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper on Tuesday — but not yet formally executed by Drexel and the city — OKs the transfer of the museum’s roughly 100,000-plus artifacts to Drexel, which has proposed a plan to house and care for the collection and make it available for the public.

From public to private ownership

It is one of the largest, if not the largest, transfers of city-owned property to a private entity in history.

There is no timetable or exhibition schedule contained in the agreement, although Drexel has committed to mounting a two-gallery exhibit dubbed “Philadelphia Revealed.”

The exhibition — not required by the transfer agreement — would take place next spring in two galleries on the Drexel campus; it would be free and open to the public, according to Rosalind Remer, Drexel senior vice provost and head of the Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships.

The exhibitions, Remer said, will feature “under-represented under-appreciated materials” from the collection.

“This is not going to be Washington’s desk and the things that everyone knows about, but rather those things that speak to different communities in Philadelphia’s history,” she said, citing a weather vane that once twirled above Moyamensing Prison, and a welcome sign that was made in what is now the Wireworks condo building in Old City. At one time, the wireworks was, indeed, a wire factory where immigrant workers made a sign could light up for troops returning from the Mexican-American War. It amounted to an early effort that ultimately evolved into neon signage.

“We’re on track now to deliver that exhibition,” Remer said.

Drexel has committed to delivering it by next spring, but there is nothing in the agreement that requires it to do so. In addition to being void of timetables, the agreement approved by the court has no funding levels required for support of the collection, either long term or short term, except for money budgeted by the city until fiscal 2024.

At court hearings at the end of last month, Drexel president John Fry declined to put a price tag on the arrangement, saying that it would be “impossible for us to anticipate what the funding needs will be from now into the future.” Drexel, he testified, would “prefer a flexible approach” without dollar figures attached to the formal agreement.

Fry said that what he called a “restricted endowment” for support of the collection might possibly become part of a larger university funding drive or might be its own separate funding effort. The university has “commissioned and paid for a feasibility study to assess the potential interest of prospective donors, either individuals or foundations or other public agencies.”

Where will the collection go?

Despite the enormous value inherent in a collection that contains art and furniture made by a who’s who of American craftspeople and artists — Thomas Sully, Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin West, and a host of others — there is no timetable for getting the collection out of storage and back into public view, although Drexel has an agreement with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to store the massive trove.

The general plan is for Drexel to digitize and “decentralize” the collection, making it available to institutions around the city, such as libraries.

Mark Zecca, a former city solicitor, said the transfer violated both the city charter and state law.

(The museum, which now no longer exists, is not simply a public agency — it is itself mandated by the 1951 city charter; its existence was established by a City Council ordinance in 1938.)

“Basically, this is a complete massive giveaway from city control, which would have been run by city employees, presumably union employees and civil service employees, to a private entity, which will be able to do whatever it wants,” said Zecca. “The agreement is basically for window dressing because it’s never going to be enforced.”

A city spokesperson said that with regard to the “question of whether the city would be in violation of the charter and state statute by carrying out this transfer, the answer is no.”

In Orphans’ Court, city officials noted that the “Atwater Kent collection was created subject to a charitable trust,” the spokesperson said.

“The trustees could not fulfill their fiduciary duties if their decisions were subject to review and control by other agencies and bodies. Under Pennsylvania law, the proper forum for review of the board of trustees’ plan for the Atwater Kent collection is the Orphans’ Court,” according to an email from the city.

Drexel officials said they fully intend to adhere to, perhaps expand on, the agreement and will get the artworks and artifacts out to the widest audience all over the city. In the past, the collection was housed on South Seventh Street in a Greek Revival building designed by John Haviland in 1826 as the first home of the Franklin Institute.

Drexel officials said they are determined to bring the collection to where people will be able to see it.

“There’s just so much depth, and that’s what people are surprised by,” said Remer, the Drexel vice provost.

“I mean, it’s lovely to see these beautiful things like Washington’s desk or some of the famous paintings. Those things have their place, and I don’t worry about them ever being out of view once we can open up this collection,” she said. “It’s the other stuff that I really want to bring to everyone’s attention.”