Philadelphia History Museum is closing to the public as Temple walks away from proposed partnership
The collapse of a hoped for partnership with Temple caught the city off guard.
The Philadelphia History Museum, mandated by the City Charter as Philadelphia's official attic for things made and owned here — whether President George Washington's desk or Mike Schmidt's batting helmet — will close to the public Monday for an undetermined period of time, museum officials said Tuesday evening.
The closing comes as Temple University has withdrawn from talks about a possible partnership with the museum, surprising city officials who had expressed optimism about such an alliance as recently as April.
Michael DiBerardinis, city managing director, said he found out about Temple's change of heart and the breakdown in talks by reading a story Wednesday on Philly.com.
"I'm upset," said DiBerardinis. "We thought we had a partner, and now we don't."
Temple's withdrawal, plus a reduction in city financial support for the coming year, leaves the museum, formerly known as the Atwater Kent Museum, unable to maintain public hours, museum officials said.
While public visiting hours will end, officials at the museum said, some non-public operations, including an intensive assessment of its collections that had begun in connection with the possible merger or partnership with Temple, will continue.
>>READ MORE: Atwater Kent and Temple in talks to merge or partner
Joe Lucia, dean of the Temple libraries, said in an email Tuesday evening that partnership talks had ended.
"After careful study, Temple has decided not to pursue an alliance with the Philadelphia History Museum at this time though we will continue to engage in some collaborative activities," Lucia wrote. "We wish this important institution all the best as it moves forward with restructuring plans."
The message seems to leave open the door for further talks on some kind of alliance down the road. On Wednesday morning, Lucia said that "we will still be doing some collaborative activities as long as there … is an entity to collaborate with us. The major change is that Temple, because of other institutional priorities, will not be pursuing an organizational merger of any kind with PHM."
DiBerardinis said the city will try to figure out a plan to maintain the museum and its collections and provide the best possible access for the public in the future.
"Our options are now more limited," he said. "But we are still committed."
He said city and museum officials intend to discuss possible futures for the museum and how to proceed. What possible futures are out there?
"I have no idea at this point," he said. "That's what we will be discussing."
Charles Croce, museum executive director and chief executive, said the city, which owns the historic museum building on Seventh Street just south of Market Street, will provide a subsidy of $250,000 for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. That amounts to a reduction of about $50,000 from this past year.
"The city has said to us, 'We're going to reduce our commitment to the museum,'" Croce said. "We've heard that for quite a while. It happened sooner rather than later."
From salaries to subsidy
The practical result is that city funding for four museum positions has been eliminated and replaced by the $250,000 operating subsidy.
Two positions, a municipal guard and the museum's registrar, are union positions and have transferred to different city agencies. Croce has, as he put it, "been re-engaged" by the museum board as executive director. The museum's director of collections has not been rehired.
For visitors, that means the closed sign will be on the door beginning Monday. For how long is the question. Croce dangled the possibility of six months, and the museum board has approved such a period of closure, but Croce acknowledged he did not know.
"We have to suspend museum operations in order to concentrate on collections evaluation," Croce said, citing "lack of staff and lack of financing."
When asked about the talks with Temple, Croce said, apparently without irony, that "they are progressing slower than we would like."
On Wednesday, Croce allowed that "the formal alliance is on hold for now," but he added that "we still have projects we are working on, including one with Temple Contemporary."
The city budget document, which was released during the spring, deems fiscal year 2019 "a planning year to develop the alliance between the museum and Temple University."
With the Temple talks now off the table, the future of the museum appears stark.
In April, the Inquirer and Daily News reported that the museum and Temple were engaged in talks about a potential partnership. It was the second partnering effort the museum had undertaken in the last few years. Talks with Woodmere Art Museum in 2015 were unsuccessful.
>>READ MORE: Woodmere, Philadelphia History Museum mull a merger
In April, Lucia, the Temple dean, said the university was quite interested in linking its Urban Archives, which cover the city's history from roughly the middle of the 19th century to the present, with the history museum's artifacts and paintings that cover roughly the same span.
Lucia said then that partnering with the history museum could lead to "understanding the urban environment and understanding the Philadelphia environment" in new and unexpected ways.
Whether that might ever happen is the big question at this point. City officials said Temple was still talking partnership up to about a week ago.
‘The option of last resort’
Kelly Lee, the city's chief cultural officer, said in April that closure of the museum would be "the option of last resort."
She did not respond to several requests for comment Tuesday and Wednesday.
The museum's collection is enormous, and because of its size, both the museum and Temple have wanted to evaluate what is in it. Temple is still planning on assisting in this process, Lucia said.
The museum is also the holder of virtually all of the 10,000 artworks and artifacts collected over the centuries by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
With the partnership now off the table, what happens with support from the City of Philadelphia for the Philadelphia History Museum?
The city budget document foresees next year as devoted to planning a transition into a future of "maximized visitation."
How that can be achieved remains another looming, unanswered question.
DiBerardinis emphasized that despite Temple's decision to withdraw, the city remains committed to making the museum a viable public institution. What shape its future might take and even where the museum may be located will discussed by city and museum officials in the coming months.
"What are the options now?" DiBerardinis wondered. "Without a major institutional partner it will be really hard."