At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, staff layoffs and program cuts recently made news. The landmark library and archive at 13th and Locust Streets is an imposing repository of nearly 20 million manuscripts.
But the travails of similar legacy institutions in this history-rich city are nothing new. In 2018 the Philadelphia History Museum near Seventh and Chestnut abruptly closed; issues of how best to preserve its 130,000 artifacts and allow public access to that collection have yet to be resolved. And historical sites and cultural attractions citywide have long struggled to attract fresh audiences and financial support. It goes without saying that in a city whose marquee attraction is history, these struggles suggest it’s time for new ways of thinking.
Partnerships with other institutions, like one that’s been discussed for several years between the society (“Philadelphia’s Library of American History”) and Drexel University, may offer a chance for financial stability and sustainability. Such an arrangement recently was crafted between the Athenaeum of Philadelphia and Penn Libraries, and in 2011 between the Academy of Natural Sciences and Drexel University.
More, or more innovative, marketing may be helpful as well. Tourism professionals at Visit Philadelphia and Historic Philadelphia suggest the innovative telling of lesser-known stories as a tool to engage people who may not realize that their ethnic or racial groups or even their own ancestors in some way played a role in the larger historical narrative. Reminding the public that the city’s story is not only about colonial-era luminaries or 19th-century titans of industry can boost attendance or contributions, the experts say.
While its handsome buildings may strike some as a bit fortress-like, the society does make efforts to attract and serve diverse audiences. Its website promotes programs with titles such as “Neighbors: The Puerto Rican Philly Experience” and “Researching Your Irish Ancestors”; the collections include 600,000 printed items and one of the nation’s largest collections of genealogical material.
It’s ironic that such a professionally curated treasure trove faces a budget crisis in an age of Ancestry.com, “heritage products” like at-home DNA test kits, and websites such as Find a Grave.com — all of which suggest people are hungry for their connection to the past, and to our collective story.
But society board chairman Bruce K. Fenton says the popularity of genealogy, while welcome, is less significant than what the nearly 200-year-old institution also offers the public: An opportunity for immersion in the writings, ideas, and ideals that helped shape American democracy, such as the first draft of the Constitution and the printer’s proof of the Declaration of Independence, both of which are found at the society.
Better showcasing that collection, perhaps in a new facility on Independence Mall, or promoting its contemporary relevance — the Society’s Balch Institute Collection focuses on the history of immigrants to the United States — could help boost patronage and support.
The curated and assembled artifacts in our institutions tell only part of the story of this city and this country. But llosing any of those parts would be tragic. We all have a responsibility to keep our history alive.