History museum

Why is the council messing with the Philadelphia Museum of History?

It’s been a busy budget season, with fights over job-boosting corporate tax cuts and a debate over how to stem the scourge of gun violence that currently dominates the city, so it’s entirely You may have missed a seemingly innocuous City Council resolution presented last week by Cindy Basse. It’s resolution 220599 and it reads:

Resolution urging the City of Philadelphia to reconsider the terms of the Atwater Kent Collection (the “Collection”) Transfer Agreement between the City of Philadelphia and Drexel University to ensure proper management of the Collection and to protect the interests of the citizens of Philadelphia.

Wait what? Wasn’t this already a deal made between the city and Drexel University, and hadn’t a court already approved it? Why did the city council suddenly get to work? And why didn’t the group of activist historians who opposed Drexel’s management of the collection on behalf of the city give up, even after the Orphans’ Court ruling?

The more you read about the case, the more you come to see it as a classic Philadelphia story, one in which otherwise intelligent people cannot fend for themselves to accept a civic victory. You don’t hear much from me praising the Kenney administration these days, but when it comes to finding a way to preserve Philadelphia’s unique historical collection, the agreement with the president of Drexel, John Fry – after no one else steps in – should be something to celebrate.

Let’s go back. The Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent, known to most of us simply as the Atwater Kent Museum (AKM), has long held the premier concentration of Philadelphia-themed artifacts from 1682 to the present day, ranging from the delightfully eccentric (a piece of Veterans Stadium Astroturf), to the sinister (the key-shaped weather vane from the top of Moyamensing Jail), to the beautifully evocative (George Washington’s rolling mahogany desk from his house at 6th and Arch streets).

The Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent | Photo by M. Fischetti/Visiting Philadelphia

But too few people were going to the 7th and Market Museum for a while. It was no longer tenable. This article by Stephan Salisbury of the Inquirer discusses the long series of failures in leadership, governance, vision, marketing and luck that brought him down. ‘

The Museum failed to generate an audience, never presented a cohesive history of the people and the evolution of the city, had little fundraising ability, and lost the $300,000 annual grant from the municipal government. The closure of the Museum was assured. And close he did. Talks were held with Temple University and the Woodmere Art Museum to step in and take responsibility for the 130,000 artifacts in the collection, but, in the end, neither institution could make it work.

When the museum closed, I wrote that it might actually be a opportunity to tell the story of Philadelphia in new and interesting ways:

Who said a museum had to be made of bricks and mortar, with a door that locks to keep the city out? Is this moment of transition for the PHM collection really an opportunity to test what a museum is and should be? Can the closure of the PHM end up bringing history to Philadelphians where they live, potentially increasing an audience beyond the typical museum visitor?

Arguing over whether the city should spend $300,000 or $250,000 on our common preconception of what a museum should be kind of misses the big picture: that brick-and-mortar museums are screaming for be disturbed.

Enter Drexel University, which was ready to step in when no one else would. Drexel, it’s important to keep in mind, would not be free to loot the collection one way or another; it would be the steward of a trust, with fiduciary responsibility to the collection and the citizens of Philadelphia.

I sat down with Rosalind Remer, vice provost and executive director of the Drexel University Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships, in 2019 and found someone willing to discuss the implications of a museum without walls — one that is also entirely accessible online – whose mission is to take history to the people.

Drexel’s plan to use this historic collection as a lending library for organizations such as local library branches, historic sites and homes, archival collections and museums has the potential to see more of the collection at any time than when it was at its brick-and-mortar location, where only 400 items were typically on display. Shouldn’t historians be disappointed After people engage with our story?

This is where we need even more context. The main opposition to Drexel’s handling of the collection came from the Pennsylvania Historical Society (HSP), which was ruled by the Orphans’ Court as having no standing in the dispute, a decision it is appealing. . To truly understand the argument between HSP and AKM, one must delve into the overlapping histories of these two historical institutions.

Here is some relevant information

In 1988, a significant cache of historical treasures – art and artifacts – was systematically stolen from the HSP Locust Street storage room. The theft was an inside job and the FBI recovered almost everything, but the embarrassment for HSP’s board and management was palpable and persistent.

Later, after experiencing difficult financial times, HSP removed a number of historical artifacts from its 10,000 item collection “…as part of a strategic plan, to focus on its manuscript collections and of libraries”. The collection of objects was “too small to support museum-style exhibits”, according to Susan Stitt, then president of the HSP. for 107 years.

The more you read about the case, the more you come to see it as a classic Philadelphia story, one in which otherwise intelligent people cannot fend for themselves to accept a civic victory.

Gone from being in the museum business, HSP transferred its collection to the Atwater Kent Museum in 1999, on the condition that, if AKM sought to sell exhibits from the HSP collection, HSP would receive 50% of the proceeds. (This is an arrangement still intact today).

The transfer agreement was signed by HSP board chairman and legal counsel Howard Lewis, an establishment lawyer and longtime HSP supporter. I got the impression reading the clips that HSP was pretty damn relieved to move the responsibility for this stuff elsewhere. But HSP wasn’t done.

A decade later, in June 2009, seemingly so pleased with the work AKM was doing and desiring a permanent arrangement, HSP amended its transfer agreement to transfer and assign “irrevocably and unconditionally” “all rights, title and interests of the Company”. at AKM. “Irrevocable”: Unalterable, impossible to revoke, according to Webster. HSP wanted none of his belongings and discharged them responsibly.

Fast forward to 2018, just before the city’s decision to stop funding the AKM. At the same time, HSP was looking for a dance partner. Why? Underfunded for 107 years. Extensive discussions with the University of Pennsylvania were unsuccessful, but HSP pursued further discussions about an affiliation with Drexel University.

“After a thorough review of the Pennsylvania Historical Society’s financial condition and considerable due diligence, Drexel has determined that it is unable to proceed with affiliation,” a Drexel spokesperson said. when HSP’s budget was $3 million and its operating deficit was $400,000.

Then the other shoe fell off. First in April 2019, HSP announced a 30% reduction in budget and personnel, immediately followed by the sale in November of a large collection of 19th century medals, bringing in approximately $2.2 million to the cash-strapped company. Despite the much-criticized sale, three months later, when Covid hit, HSP was in serious organizational and financial trouble. The search was on for a permanent CEO who could get him out of trouble.

Across town, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a group of alumni and students had gone in search of the school’s president, David Brigham. There were swirling issues – complaints about the school’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement and its handling of a student sexual assault case. Brigham would step down and eventually be appointed to lead HSP.

Before long, and in response to the city’s settlement with Drexel, Brigham would claim in HSP’s name the AKM collection, its original portion which, remember, his organization had irrevocably transferred. Brigham’s argument for HSP was that “the Atwater Kent collection comprises over 10,000 items donated by HSP, with the understanding that they would be displayed in a museum.”

Which brings us back to the definition of a museum in 2022

HSP and the historians now lobbying the Council seem committed to the idea of ​​a brick-and-mortar museum, whether anyone visits it or not. Their ideas dot the landscape of Cindy Bass’ resolution, including giving HSP the right to replace by borrowing her old artifacts from everyone else.

I haven’t interviewed any of the principals in this dispute, save for a Q&A with Drexel’s Remer in 2019, when she excited me about the possibility of reimagining how this most historic city does its story. Instead, I read the clips and court documents, because the he said, she said in this case is actually a messy distraction. The dispute here is not so much factual as philosophical. The Council should not be misled by back and forth.

Instead, here’s what the Council needs to know: HSP has irrevocably waived its status, as the Orphans’ Court has ruled. Far from being a Barnesian pillorying of a thriving arts institution, Drexel’s assumption of this trust is a salvage mission by a private institution acting in the public interest as a fiduciary responsibility. And the idea that a city government must be in the museum business for a city to intelligently tell its story is misleading on the face of it.

Last month, we saw Kansas City transfer its historical collection to the nonprofit Kansas City Museum Collection. Other historical entities have not cried foul. The legislator has not sought to weigh in on attempts to stubbornly define what a museum is in the most restrictive way imaginable. Instead, it was seen as a civic win-win.

Here we have a university president willing to do what others wouldn’t – engage in a way that benefits both his institution and the public good. Too often in this city, no good civic action goes unpunished. Let’s thank Drexel, hold it to its legal commitments, and enjoy new ways to tell Philadelphia’s story.

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