Does America's most historic city need an old-school history museum? That's a question many have been pondering as the Philadelphia History Museum has been struggling to find a sustainable future.
Over the years, I've worked for and with the museum in several capacities: as deputy director in 2000, adviser during the exploration to merge with the Woodmere Art Museum in 2015, and more recently with the group at Temple University exploring a merger, and on the museum's collections advisory committee. The opinions in this column are mine alone.
Yes, there's been a lot of talk. But what's missing is the wider civic conversation about our grip, our stewardship, our appreciation of the city's past in the context of the 21st century.
A little background. In the waning years of the Great Depression, the Atwater Kent Museum (now the Philadelphia History Museum) had DNA shaped by the WPA. The Works Progress Administration employed musicians, artists, writers, historians and actors in large creative projects. The focus was on good works and the public good, and in the case of a public history museum in Philadelphia, the assumption was straightforward: The stuff of the past told the story of the past. Seventy-seven years ago, museum founders imagined that the city's narrative could fit neatly into the recently vacated Greek Revival building that was the original home of the Franklin Institute, a block from Independence Hall.
Radio manufacturing magnate A. Atwater Kent bought the landmark building for the newly conceived museum and presented it to the city. The museum became the "drop-off point for countless Philadelphia families emptying their cellars and attics," according to historian Gary Nash. Philly folk appreciated that the museum "privileged what the other collecting institutions generally scoffed at – residue of everyday life…from shop signs to kitchenware and craftsman's tools." Meanwhile, the city's historical narrative grew more complex.
The museum barely kept pace with an ever-expanding conception of Philadelphia history in an ecosystem of more than dozens of collecting institutions (museums, libraries, archives and historic sites).
In the 1990s, the idea of consolidating collections in one location at a giant, brand-new History Center gained some traction. Not for a lack of trying, "big box" history in Philadelphia failed. In a city with a crowded field of older, established and newer, focused museums, archives and libraries, the Atwater Kent would never come to dominate the vast swath of Philadelphia history. No institution would or could ever claim to.
Now, thanks to the diversity of our historical community combined with a mature digital culture, we can finally appreciate and embrace what was always obvious: Philadelphia is a place where history is at its best wherever history happens to be.
Our many excellent research institutions are better off dedicating themselves to their various missions to collect, interpret, and engage. Our many historic sites provide irreplaceable, authentic experiences.
In recent years, we learned from Hidden City (the festivals, the blog and the book) that a robust sense of place and past is found in special places. We learned from Monument Lab that memories of the past and of place are part of something expanding, dynamic and valuable.
Our hard and long-earned confidence has brought us to the cusp of remaking our history system with the use of tools, alliances and capabilities that will introduce our historical assets wherever they are to those who want and need them, wherever they may be.
That's where the idea of integrating the missions and functionality of the Philadelphia History Museum and 21st-century digital culture comes into play. It's not really so important which institution owns what, so long as all of it is available and accessible. So long as we continue to remain stuck in 18th- and 19th-century habits of caring about who owns what and stuck in 20th-century ways of compartmentalizing the past, Philadelphia history will be a losing proposition.
What will be a winning proposition?
Shared collection storage and open digital access. Programmatic alliances based more on asking than telling. Engaging processes where the journey is as important as arrival. Informed and enlightened conversations more than lectures; narrative laboratories more than factories. Call it a combination of museum and library, a History Lab, where process and product are shaped by the information culture.
In Philadelphia, a city where the past is seen and felt in just about everything, everywhere, every day, the DNA of a history museum needs to better match that of our own times; it needs to address the living wants and needs of America's most historic city.
The result will no longer look or feel like an old-school museum. When it comes to exploring who and what we are, it's essential that our institutions evolve along with us, not vice versa.