History museum

Philadelphia transfers its history museum collection to Drexel University

The Philadelphia Orphans’ Court has approved the end of the city-owned story, authorizing a plan to transfer ownership of the Philadelphia Museum of History collection to Drexel University, ending the 84-year-old’s life of the city’s Atwater Kent Museum.

Philadelphia, which has made its three centuries of history a national mark, will no longer have a history museum dedicated to his autobiography.

The office used by President George Washington when he helped create the nation from the president’s home at Sixth and High Streets will no longer be available for display at the city’s discretion. Nor will the soft fedora-like hat that Abraham Lincoln wore as he sneaked around town “in disguise” on his way to his inauguration in 1861. He will no longer own the wampum sash given to William Penn, or the Jimmy Rollins’ Phillies jersey or a lunch stand at Lil Pete’s restaurant on South 17th Street.

“These things are priceless,” said historian Frank Hoeber, a critic of the deal. “I’m not just talking about George Washington’s office. There are paintings related to historical issues that we can never see again and whose story has never been told, you know? It’s not Philadelphia history, it’s American history.

The agreement approved by Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper on Tuesday – but not yet formally executed by Drexel and the city – authorizes the transfer of the approximately 100,000 artifacts from the museum to Drexel, which has proposed a plan to house and maintain the collection and the make it accessible to the public.

This is one of the largest, if not the largest, transfer of municipal property to a private entity in history.

There is no calendar or exhibition schedule contained in the agreement, although Drexel has committed to mounting a two-gallery exhibition titled “Philadelphia Revealed”.

The exhibition — not required by the transfer agreement — would take place next spring at two galleries on the Drexel campus; it would be free and open to the public, according to Rosalind Remer, senior vice-president of Drexel and director of the Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships.

The exhibits, Remer said, will feature “underrepresented and underappreciated materials” from the collection.

“It won’t be the office in Washington and the things that everyone knows, but rather those things that speak to different communities about Philadelphia’s history,” she said, citing a weather vane that once twirled overhead. above Moyamensing Jail, and a welcome sign that was made in what is now the Wireworks condo building in Old Town. At one time, the spinning mill was, in effect, a yarn factory where immigrant workers made a lightable sign for troops returning from the Mexican-American War. This was an early effort that eventually evolved into neon signage.

“We are now on track to deliver this exhibit,” Remer said.

Drexel has committed to delivering it next spring, but nothing in the deal requires it to do so. In addition to being devoid of timelines, the court-approved agreement has no funding levels required for fundraising support, long-term or short-term, except for funds budgeted by the city ​​until fiscal year 2024.

During court hearings late last month, Drexel chairman John Fry declined to put a price on the arrangement, saying it would be “impossible for us to anticipate what the financing requirements will be from from now into the future”. Drexel, he testified, “would prefer a flexible approach” with no dollar figures attached to the formal agreement.

Fry said what he called a “restricted endowment” to support the collection could eventually be part of a larger university fundraising campaign or could be its own separate fundraising effort. The university “commissioned and paid for a feasibility study to assess the potential interest of potential donors, whether individuals, foundations or other public bodies”.

Despite the enormous value inherent in a collection that contains works of art and furniture made by a who’s who of American artisans and artists – Thomas Sully, Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin West and many others – there is no There’s no timeline for moving the collection out of storage and back into public view, although Drexel has an agreement with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to store the massive treasure.

The general plan is for Drexel to digitize and “decentralize” the collection, making it available to city institutions, such as libraries.

Mark Zecca, a former city attorney, said the transfer violated both the city charter and state law.

(The museum, which no longer exists, is not merely a public body – it is itself mandated by the city’s 1951 charter; its existence was established by a city council ordinance in 1938.)

“Basically, this is a complete massive gift of control of the city, which would have been run by city employees, presumably unionized employees and public service employees, to a private entity, which will be able to do whatever she wants,” Zecca said. “The deal is basically for the facade because it will never be enforced.”

A city spokesperson said that as to the “question of whether the city would violate the charter and state statute by making this transfer, the answer is no.”

In Orphans’ Court, city officials noted that “the Atwater Kent collection was created subject to a charitable trust,” the spokesperson said.

“Trustees could not discharge their fiduciary duties if their decisions were subject to scrutiny and scrutiny by other agencies and bodies. Under Pennsylvania law, the proper forum for review of the board’s plan for the Atwater Kent collection is orphans’ court,” according to an email from the city.

Drexel officials said they fully intend to adhere to the agreement, possibly expand on it, and release the artwork and artifacts to the widest audiences throughout the city. In the past, the collection was housed on South Seventh Street in a Greek Revival building designed by John Haviland in 1826 as the first home of the Franklin Institute.

Drexel officials said they are committed to bringing the collection where people can see it.

“There’s so much depth, and that’s what surprises people,” said Remer, Drexel’s vice president.

“I mean, it’s nice to see these beautiful things like the Washington office or some of the famous paintings. These things have their place, and I have no fear that they will never be out of sight once we can open this collection,” she said. “Those are the other things I really want to bring to everyone’s attention.”