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Drexel is set to take over Philly’s historic artifacts. As a historian, I’m worried. | Opinion

The public deserves transparency and accountability — before the city embarks on this massive giveaway, writes Kenneth Finkel.

A bust of Nicholas Biddle (left) is among the exhibits that are part of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.
A bust of Nicholas Biddle (left) is among the exhibits that are part of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

It is hard to believe that Philadelphia — America’s most historic city — may never again have a museum to share the city’s extraordinary history. When the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent escorted the last visitors from its galleries in July 2018, collection staff set about consolidating more than 130,000 artifacts in an anonymous warehouse, far from public view.

That warehouse contains a treasure trove of the city’s history, ranging from George Washington’s desk while president in Philadelphia to Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves. Crowding the aisles are paintings, sculptures, textiles, political memorabilia, photographs, archives, architectural models, carts, tools, signs, toys, sports, and food history — everything from artifacts of daily life centuries ago to some of America’s greatest artistic and historical riches.

After years of inadequate fund-raising, followed by explorations of possible mergers with the Woodmere Art Museum then Temple University, the museum’s board of trustees in 2019 announced an anticipated transfer of the entire collection to Drexel University. Years passed, during which time the museum remained closed and the artifacts remained in storage.

If Drexel becomes the next owner of Philadelphia’s history, what does it owe the public?

That’s the question before Orphans’ Court, which has jurisdiction over nonprofits.

» READ MORE: Drexel is prepared to take charge of Philadelphia History Museum holdings

On Monday, representatives from the city, the museum’s board of trustees, Drexel, interested members of the city’s cultural community, and historic preservation advocates will gather to discuss the fate of this irreplaceable collection.

It’s not clear how much the collection is actually worth — be it $5 million, $50 million, or $500 million. While the monetary value is of interest, that’s not the primary concern. Even more valuable than the collection’s financial footprint is its cultural footprint. It’s our collective identity, the legacy of Philadelphia’s communities that have come and gone. It’s the stuff that illustrates and animates our deep, rich, and unique 340-year-old history.

Now the stuff of Philadelphia history is literally up for grabs. And, as a growing number of community, civic, and legacy-minded citizens have been arguing for years, the city needs to set a high bar with stringent terms for this unprecedented, historical giveaway.

Yet the city has punted.

The petition before the court on Monday offers Drexel University immediate and permanent ownership of the city’s historical collection. Only after the transfer of the collection is consummated will the city and Drexel “enter into a written transfer agreement filling out details of the plan’s requirements.” Buried deep in the city’s 264-page petition are less than four pages with an outline of that plan. But it is not a plan. Because it lets Drexel and the city negotiate the terms of the transfer of these artifacts without outside approval or oversight, the plan is essentially a “black box.”

Before the city embarks on this massive giveaway, isn’t the public owed transparency and accountability?

“Before the city embarks on this massive giveaway, isn’t the public owed transparency and accountability?”

Kenneth Finkel

Drexel is decidedly unclear about how it will fund storage and manage access to the collection. Drexel and the city say they want the collection winnowed down. Who decides what goes, what stays? And what becomes of thousands of weeded-out artifacts? What rules will guide the process?

The proposed transfer plan contemplates the creation of an endowment dedicated to collections care but reveals no details as to its actual size. What’s to guarantee that this endowment will be up to the task? What becomes of the endowment as Drexel’s fiscal capabilities change over time? The public has a right to know how much of an endowment will be raised — and by when.

Drexel has promised public access to the collection, which the city appears to have blindly accepted. But until there are details about the proposed program to lend collection items to other institutions, create a digital portal to view the collection online, and enable in-person access for researchers, approval of transfer should be withheld. And what about governance? As proposed, the majority of a proposed oversight committee would be appointed by Drexel, potentially guaranteeing a permanent backseat for the public interest. In Drexel’s hands, will Philadelphia ever again have an active, expanding history collection? Will Philadelphia ever again have a history museum?

It is in all of our best interests to demand visibility and viability in a fully developed transfer agreement — before, not after, that transfer is approved. The future of the past hangs in the balance.

Kenneth Finkel is a professor in history and American studies at Temple University. A lifelong Philadelphian, he served as deputy director of the Atwater Kent Museum in 2000.