The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia has an important story to tell, but no place to tell it.
The museum closed its cramped quarters in Center City last August, with plans to move into a new home near Independence National Historical Park. But since then, Gov. Rendell has rescinded a promised capital grant that would pay for renovation of the new home.
The loss of funding prompted the National Park Service to withdraw its offer of a historic building at Third and Chestnut Streets.
The museum may be forced to leave Philadelphia. "We're really at a crisis point right now," said Sharon Smith, the museum's president and CEO.
The museum's 3,000 artifacts are still in storage - letters from soldiers to their wives; a smoking jacket that belonged to Confederate President Jefferson Davis; a tree trunk studded with metal shell fragments from the Battle of Gettysburg; a Tiffany sword given to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant after he captured Vicksburg; and what is believed to be Robert E. Lee's copy of the terms of surrender at Appomattox.
It's a collection that should be on display in Philadelphia, which played a key role in the emergence of African Americans from slavery to full citizenship. The city was the home of the first free community of blacks in the nation, a hub in the Underground Railroad, and an important stage for abolitionists.
Nine years ago, public officials felt the museum was so important to the city that they went to court to block its planned move to Richmond, Va. Among those who prevented the museum from leaving was the Republican state attorney general, Mike Fisher.
That effort to save the collection resulted in former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.) securing $15 million in capital funding for the museum. In 2007, Rendell told museum officials he would release $8 million to $10 million of the capital grant.
But the governor later reneged.
Roebuck said the governor told him the museum's collection "wasn't important; that it was marginalized."
"It was almost flippant; I don't quite understand," Roebuck said.
A spokesman for the governor said there are limited funds for capital projects and that "specific Philadelphia projects would be identified by the city."
The state has a budget crisis, but funding for capital projects does not come out of the general operating fund. And the bond money for this project was designated years ago.
The museum would have an economic impact, drawing as many as 900,000 new visitors annually. Officials have raised more than $1 million in private pledges but say they need the grant money to leverage more donations.
The state should follow through with its commitment and help the museum find a new home in Philadelphia.