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What happens when a World Heritage City can’t support its own heritage? | Opinion

Rather than “looking up” for saviors, institutions should “look sideways” to each other, and ask how they can work with their peers to lift their collective well-being.

Independence Hall, a World Heritage site, was on the Heritage Cities tour list.
Independence Hall, a World Heritage site, was on the Heritage Cities tour list.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The two recent shockwaves in the history community involving the closing of the Philadelphia History Museum and a staff reduction at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania didn’t come as a complete surprise, but their quick succession has led many to question the future of collections-based historical institutions in the city. The Philadelphia History Museum, with more than 130,000 artifacts, and the Historical Society, with its 20 million pages of manuscripts, are the two greatest stewards of the city’s history. What does it say if Philadelphia, the United States’ first UNESCO World Heritage City, cannot support its own heritage?

Up to this point, there has been something of a “Philadelphia model” for how struggling cultural institutions, especially collections-based ones, can deal with financial crises. Both the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia’s merger with Drexel and the Rosenbach’s partnership with the Free Library Foundation saved them from the fate that the Philadelphia History Museum and the Historical Society now face and have served as exemplars of this model. In both cases, a smaller organization formed a long-lasting, strategic partnership with a larger, more financially secure institution. And in each instance, the more stable organization assumed some governance responsibilities and provided a stronger financial footing through direct aid, integrated fund-raising, and administrative support.

The apparent success of these two well-known collaborations has fueled others to seek similar deals. But there are only so many larger institutions in town, and only so many institutions they can take on. This model cannot be sustainable.

It is time to explore different approaches to institutional sustainability. Rather than “looking up” for saviors, institutions of similar sizes and with comparable collections-based missions, even those in a strong financial position, should “look sideways” to each other, and ask how they can work with their peers to lift their collective well-being.

Many institutions are pursuing such work through joint programming. But while these group efforts at public outreach are frequent and successful, fewer have cast their eyes to the ways institutions can partner on back-end administrative systems.

Consider the inherent redundancy in small and middle-sized nonprofits. Why should, say, five separate nonprofits with $20 million endowments have five CFOs when a nonprofit with $100 million can make do with just one? And what if these five hypothetical institutions pooled their relatively small endowments to create a larger one, which would provide them with access to more sophisticated financial instruments?

There are other areas in which joint administration might create efficiencies and build greater opportunities for these institutions and their users. A group of collections-based institutions could adopt and share systems, such as the consortia for a shared ticketing system among many performing arts organizations in Philadelphia. Collection storage and care are also similar responsibilities of these institutions. There may be ways institutions can reach beyond their walls, connect collections, and share the cost of their stewardship of our region’s and nation’s treasures.

Such a model would not only provide financial support by reducing costs. It would also empower each institution to focus fully on its programmatic mission. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is that such efforts require institutions to cede some level of administrative independence, even if the inspiring mission of each member stayed untouched.

But that may just be the reason it is right for Philadelphia. Collaboration is embedded in our city’s DNA. The Quaker tradition that has guided the city since its founding cherishes community and humility over individualism and ego. Philadelphia’s greatest citizen, Benjamin Franklin, led the city by encouraging civic action rather than competitiveness. And let’s not forget that in 1776 and then again in 1787, it was in this city that leaders facing a collective crisis put aside their individual concerns and came together in a great experiment that changed the world.

Even if such a model would prove infeasible, I offer it here as a way to show that this moment provides an opportunity for Philadelphia to once again be innovative. And the problem is not faced by our city alone. Nonprofits throughout the country are facing many of the same challenges. Once again, Philadelphia has a chance to experiment and build a new model that can be adopted elsewhere. We should see this moment as an opportunity to not only solve our problem but once again lead the nation.

Patrick Spero is the librarian and director of the American Philosophical Society Library. His most recent book is “Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776” (W.W. Norton, 2018).