The fate of the Philadelphia History Museum has risen and fallen with the city’s fortunes.
The museum was established in the late 1930s with donations from radio pioneer A. Atwater Kent and located at 15 S. Seventh St., in a building that originally housed the Franklin Institute.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the city fell on hard times and cut budgets and services, including help to the city’s charter-mandated history museum. There was hardly enough money to cover the bills, never mind the niceties of marketing that may have improved the museum’s bottom line.
Times didn’t get better for the museum over the following years. In 2011, the museum sold some of its artifacts and paintings, including noted Philadelphia portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale’s 1819 portrait of Yarrow Mamout to cover a $1.4 million construction loan. The portrait is one of the earliest paintings of a free African.
The sale of such a significant artwork was a very public admission that the Atwater Kent was in free fall. Last June, the museum shut its doors and its collection — which includes William Penn’s wampum belt, George Washington’s presidential desk, and Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves — was put into storage. Last year, a potential partnership with Temple University fell apart. But now the city and Drexel University are working to on plans to democratize the collections in a very Philadelphian way. They will hold a meeting Feb. 27 at the Constitution Center to explain the changes and gather ideas from the public.
Initial thoughts are to lend artifacts to libraries, historic sites, shopping centers, and maybe even recreation centers — places where the public gathers and can have access to the objects that tell Philadelphia’s stories. Drexel and the city are digitizing the collection of more than 100,000 items and will put it online
It is appropriate that Drexel, which has taken an increasing role in the city’s civic life as an innovator in recent years, is working on this project. From its earliest days in the 1890s, Drexel has been collecting artifacts like artwork, furniture, and manuscripts and using them to teach students.
The university has a museum curriculum and its students are eager to take on this challenge, says Vice Provost Rosalind Remer, an historian, (and full disclosure, vice chair of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.) Drexel has experience shoring up our valued institutions. In 2011, the university entered into a partnership with the Academy of Natural Sciences. It integrated the museum and university, energizing the academy and enhancing Drexel’s biodiversity studies.
For a city that is the seat of so much of America’s history, it is a sad irony to see the museum housing the city’s own history disappear; losing public access to its artifacts is unthinkable. There are many unanswered questions about how collections will be displayed, who will own them, and what happens to the building. Some of those questions will be sorted out in Orphan’s Court, which has jurisdiction over nonprofits. But Philadelphians have a voice in this, too. To learn more or to offer ideas, go to the Feb. 27 meeting at the Constitution Center.