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Looking for the future of historical institutions, as America’s 250th birthday looms | Opinion

There has been a crisis developing in slow motion and in plain sight for many years among historical institutions, but we now have to face it.

The Philly Pops performs their annual July 3rd concert at Independence Hall.
The Philly Pops performs their annual July 3rd concert at Independence Hall.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The recent news of significant layoffs at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, combined with last month’s news of the intended closing of the Philadelphia History Museum and the transfer of its collections to Drexel University, has shaken the community of history organizations in Philadelphia. The bad news doesn’t come as a surprise. There has been a crisis developing in slow motion and in plain sight for many years -- but we now have to face it.

There are many causes: Steady declines in government funding, reliance on a small group of philanthropists, the apparent waning of popular interest in history, an overpopulation of organizations, a disconnect from the community caused by the lack of diversity in the leadership and staff all have played a role in getting us where we are. But the crisis has brought some clarity to our situation, and compels us to look ahead.

What I see in the future is an opportunity -- specifically the opportunity presented by the 250th birthday of the United States in 2026, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Some planning for the 250th on a national scale has begun, but we are just starting to think about what we will do in Philadelphia. When we turn our focus to this major anniversary, more specific collaborations that build from strengths become possible.

This can’t just be a nostalgic celebration of American greatness. The problems faced by the founders were real and dangerous -- and we face many of the same problems today. Modern democracy was born in Philadelphia and transplanted all over the world. Today many of those democracies (and some would say our own) are threatened by trends toward authoritarianism and nationalism, exacerbated by disparities in income and accelerated by climate change.

The founders saw this coming. The common wisdom of the day was that democracy was an impossibly unstable and undesirable form of government, vulnerable to tyrants and demagogues. The key to a successful democracy, they thought, was an educated public – gained through public schools, but also through a free press and through the new information technology of the public library. Ben Franklin said he thought the model of public library he invented with the Library Company (a model that proliferated throughout the colonies} played no small role in preparing Americans to seize their independence and run a democracy.

The history organizations of Philadelphia have an extremely important mission that they are uniquely qualified to execute -- to remind the world where democracy came from, and what it needs to thrive. Our message is renewal. Our job is nothing less than reminding the world of the potential of democracy, by showing the world its beginnings, its core values, and how it can adapt to a new, more diverse, more technologically sophisticated, more divided world.

What would a history community focused on renewing democracy look like? It would use its collections and scholarship to take on ideas and trends that frustrate democracy, issues like gerrymandering, voter suppression, the stoking of voter disenchantment and disaffection. It would measure its success in metrics like voter registration and voter turnout, but also in raising awareness of local heroes and struggles. In the end, we might see the boundaries of the history community dissolve, so that we might no longer see a clear distinction between the institutions and the people they serve.

Philadelphians tend to think of history as something for tourists – like my grandparents’ parlor, only used when company came. Tourists will not save us, nor will any new history museum built primarily for them. Mergers, affiliations, and shared back-office arrangements will help, but what is really needed is a shared sense of purpose driving toward a shared goal. And that goal needs to matter to all of us, and nothing matters more to all of us than the fate of our democracy.

We don’t need to try this alone. Perhaps Ben Franklin’s greatest genius was his ability to bring people together to solve a problem. Our first step as a community is to create a better platform to share ideas and work together. We need a new Junto, in the style of Franklin’s informal “think tank,” to meet regularly and talk about how we can use our history and the approaching 250th to renew and reenergize our democracy. The Library Company was one of the first projects of the original Junto, and the first library to inspire the creation of the United States – it would be an excellent place to begin this rediscovery.

Michael Barsanti is the director of the Library Company of Philadelphia.