The room is massive and white. The columns have been removed, and sleek, barely-noticeable arches hug the high ceiling and hold the weight of this historical building's structure. Beneath me is Philadelphia, and my foot is about the length of seven city blocks.
Three quarters of a century after its founding, the Philadelphia History Museum has had a makeover: new name, new look. The name was chosen to make it clear what the museum was about. "The Atwater Kent Museum" had a lot of residents guessing, and many people missed it. The massive map of Philadelphia, on which I'm currently tramping about like Godzilla on Tokyo, the flooring for their special events space, is also an iconic representation of the museum's new focus. It is modern, attractively designed, and hands-on.
The museum lets objects tell the stories of the people who have populated this city since it's founding. The Ordinary, The Extraordinary, and the Unknown: The Power of Objects, one of the museum's permanent exhibits, features big-profile items like George Washington's desk, Joe Frazier's boxing gloves, and General George Meade's presentation sword.
But more prominent here is the proliferation of anonymous-looking items which show how everyday objects represent the stories that make up our past. There is a ratty jewelry box that has been traced back to its manufacture in Ireland. "We don't know her name," says the caption beneath, "but in the early 1900s she carried this from Ireland to her new home."
"Imagine it," continues the caption. "She pulls the leather jewelry box from her bureau drawer and pauses. The little box she carried so carefully from Ireland to Philadelphia brings back memories of the life and loved ones she left behind. As her hand touches the little box, she sheds a silent tear . . ." This may be a bit melodramatic, but it could also be true.
"Seated here in 1781," says a caption to a chair owned by Sarah Franklin Bache, "you might have been listening to Ben Franklin say something wise."
There are also grim memorials of our city's history. There is an African American family touring the museum directly ahead of me. "Oh my God!" cried a teenager, calling her mother's attention to a rusty iron collar with baroque-looking attachments, after reading the lettering beneath, "they used to make slaves wear these!"
Among my favorite objects was a circa 1980's Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper rack ("In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads The Bulletin"), a copy of the final issue in the window with the headline: "GOODBYE; After 134 years, a Philadelphia voice is silent."
For every object, says the placard at the start of the exhibit, the curators ask three questions: what was the object and its original use, what stories can it tell, and what is its Philadelphia connection?
A glass Benjamin Franklin once drank from, and pledged his faith with, is used to tell the etiquette of toast-making at the time of the founding fathers.
Though the executive director himself has opined that they are short on objects post-2000, the institution is clearly dedicated to making history relevant and shows that history was being made yesterday and is still being made today. Among The Power of Objects' collection is a mummer's fan and shoes, a handful of Occupy Philadelphia buttons, and a pair of bocci balls, each with their own story.
Craft Brewing: It's a Brewing Revolution, a temporary exhibit, tracks the drama of Philly brewing from 1682 to our current "craft revolution." Though the space is only about 400 square feet, locally produced bottles and cans line the walls alongside placards telling the stories of various eras of beer production here, and video interviews with the presidents and founders of Dock Street, Philadelphia Brewing Company, and Yards Brewing Company, expand the exhibit beyond its actual perimeter.
As has been widely publicized, the museum has been under scrutiny for its treatment of objects. Deaccessioning is what it's called when a cultural institution off-loads items from their collection. American art museums can only spend money gained by deaccessioning on acquiring new objects; museums like the PHM, overseen by the American Association for State and Local History, have more leeway. However, it is still an ethical minefield.
The three-year, $6 million renovation, which turned the Atwater Kent into the PHM, was paid for in part by deaccessioning over 2,000 objects. There is a question of whether funds were valid for renovation expenses (deaccessioning funds, for historical institutions, must be spent on updating or caring for the collection), and some also feel that the PHM was less than transparent during the process.
Yet the renovations were necessary to the collection. According to Kelly Murphy, Memberships and Communications Coordinator at the PHM, because of the poor conditions of the HVAC, electricity and other utilities, less than 10% of the 100,000-item collection has ever been shown.
Kristen Froeliche, Director of the Collection, lamented that paintings had been impossible to display for years, and that rare items, like a pair of portraits of abolitionist Stephen Smith and his wife Harriet Lee, may not have been shown in over three decades. Some however, are simply worried that the PHM's actions will encourage other institutions to be less judicious about deaccessioning.
Whether there is validity to worries about the way the PHM executed its deaccessioning, one distinct irony is that a deaccessioned item people have been particularly upset about is a painting by the son of Charles Willson Peale, naturalist and founder of the first American museum, The Philadelphia Museum. If it was a choice between letting that painting moulder in the archives, or being able to show other paintings to the public, the choice seems clear. It is also worth noting that Peale's museum, unable to obtain funding, closed down shortly after his death, and the collection was split between several buyers.
The end result is that the renovations worked. The museum has attracted over 15,500 visitors since their September 2012 opening. Of course, fewer than a quarter of them have been Philadelphia residents. National and international visitors are currently keeping the museum about daily Philadelphia life alive.