Why is Council Messing with the Philadelphia History Museum?

It’s been a busy budget season, what with fights over job-stimulating business tax cuts and a debate over how to stem the scourge of gun violence currently dominating the city, so it’s entirely possible you missed a seemingly innocuous City Council resolution introduced last week by Cindy Bass. 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 in order to ensure adequate stewardship of the Collection and protect the interests of the citizens of Philadelphia.

Wait, what? Wasn’t this already a done deal between the City and Drexel University, and hadn’t a court already approved it? Why was City Council suddenly getting in on the act? And why were the group of activist historians who had been opposed to Drexel’s stewardship of the collection on behalf of the city not giving up, even after Orphans’ Court’s ruling?

The more you read about the case, the more you come to see it as a classically Philly story, one in which otherwise smart people can’t get out of their own way in order to accept a civic win. You don’t hear much from me praising the Kenney administration these days, but when it comes to figuring out a way to preserve Philadelphia’s unique historical collection, the deal with Drexel President John Fry — after no one else would step up — should be something to celebrate.

Let’s back up. The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, known to most of us simply as the Atwater Kent Museum (AKM), had long held the premier concentration of Philly-themed objects from 1682 to the present day, ranging from the delightfully eccentric (a chunk of Veterans Stadium Astroturf), to the forebodingly grim (the key-shaped weathervane from the top of Moyamensing Prison), to the magnificently evocative (George Washington’s mahogany roll-top desk from his home at 6th and Arch streets).

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

But too few people were going to the museum at 7th and Market for quite some time. It was no longer sustainable. This piece by the Inquirer’s Stephan Salisbury touches on the long string of failures of leadership, governance, vision, marketing and luck that felled it. ‘

The Museum couldn’t generate an audience, never presenting a coherent story of the city’s people and evolution, had little fundraising capacity — and lost the City government’s $300,000 annual subsidy. The Museum’s closing was assured. And close it did. There were talks with Temple University and Woodmere Art Museum to step in and assume responsibility for the 130,000 artifacts in the collection, but, at the end, neither institution could make it work.

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

Who says a museum has to be made of brick and mortar, with a door that locks to keep the city outside? Is this moment of transition for the PHM collection actually an opportunity to hold up to inspection just what a museum is and ought to be? Can the closing of PHM end up bringing history to Philadelphians where they live, potentially growing an audience beyond the typical museum-goer?

To argue about whether the city ought to devote $300,000 or $250,000 to our common preconception of what a museum must be kind of misses the bigger picture: that brick and mortar museums cry out for disruption.

Enter Drexel University, which was willing to step up when no one else would. Drexel, it’s important to keep in mind, would not be free to somehow raid the collection; it would be the steward of a trust, with a fiduciary responsibility to both the collection and the citizens of Philadelphia.

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

Drexel’s plan to use this historical collection as a lending library to organizations like local library branches, historic sites and houses, archival collections, and museums has the potential for more of the collection to be on view at any one time than when it was at its brick-and-mortar location, where only 400 objects were typically on display. Shouldn’t historians be down with more people engaging with our history?

Here’s where we need even more context. The principal opposition to Drexel’s stewardship of the collection has come from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), which has been found by Orphans’ Court not to have standing in the dispute, a determination it is appealing. To truly understand the argument between HSP and AKM, one has to dig back into the overlapping histories of these two historical institutions.

Here’s some relevant background

In 1988, a major cache of historic treasures — art and artifacts — were systematically stolen from HSP’s Locust Street storage room. The theft was an inside job, and the FBI recovered almost everything, but the embarrassment for HSP’s Board and leadership was palpable and lingering.

Later, having fallen on hard financial times, HSP deaccessed a number of historical artifacts in its collection of 10,000 items “… as part of a strategic plan, to concentrate on its manuscript and library collections.” The collection of objects was “too small to sustain proper museum style exhibitions,” according to Susan Stitt, HSP’s then-president.” “This must never happen again,” noted Stitt who blamed the thefts on “under-capitalization and underfunding of this society.” for 107 years.”

The more you read about the case, the more you come to see it as a classically Philly story, one in which otherwise smart people can’t get out of their own way in order to accept a civic win.

Finished with being in the museum business, HSP transferred its collection to the Atwater Kent Museum in 1999, with the proviso that, should AKM seek to sell any exhibits in the HSP collection, HSP would receive 50 percent of the proceeds. (That’s an arrangement still intact today).

The transfer agreement was signed by HSP’s then-board chair and legal counsel, Howard Lewis, an establishment lawyer and longtime HSP supporter. I got the sense from reading the clips that HSP was damn relieved to move responsibility for this stuff elsewhere. But HSP hadn’t finished.

A decade later, in June 2009, apparently so pleased with the job that AKM was doing, and desiring a permanent arrangement, HSP amended its transfer agreement to “irrevocably and unconditionally” transfer and assign “all of the Society’s right, title and interest” to AKM. “Irrevocable”: Unalterable, not possible to revoke, according to Webster’s. HSP wanted no part of its stuff and it had responsibly unloaded it.

Fast forward to 2018, just prior to the city’s decision to stop funding the AKM. Simultaneously, HSP was searching for a dance partner. Why? Underfunding for 107 years. Extensive talks with the University of Pennsylvania did not bear fruit, but HSP went deep into discussions about an affiliation with Drexel University.

“After an in-depth examination of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s financial situation and a lot of due diligence, Drexel found it was unable to move forward with the affiliation,” a Drexel spokesperson said when HSP’s budget was $3 million and its operating deficit, $400,000.

Then the other shoe dropped. First in April 2019, HSP announced a 30 percent reduction in budget and staff immediately followed by its November sale of a large collection of 19th-century medals, fetching about $2.2 million for the cash-strapped Society. Despite the much-criticized sale, three months later, by the time Covid struck, HSP was in considerable organizational and financial trouble. The search was on for a permanent CEO who could lead it out of its troubles.

Across town at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a group of alumni and students had gone head hunting for school President David Brigham. There were swirling issues — complaints of the school’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and of its handling of a student sexual assault case. Brigham would step down and ultimately be named to run HSP.

In short order and in response to the city’s deal with Drexel, Brigham would lay claim on HSP’s behalf to the AKM collection, its original portion of which, remember, his organization had irrevocably transferred. Brigham’s argument for HSP was that “The Atwater Kent Collection includes more than 10,000 items donated by HSP with the understanding that they would be displayed in a museum.”

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

HSP and the historians who are now lobbying Council seem wedded to the notion of a brick and mortar museum, whether or not anyone would actually visit it. Their ideas dot the landscape of Cindy Bass’ resolution, including giving HSP the right to supersede in borrowing its former artifacts over all others.

I’ve not interviewed any of the principals in this dispute, save an on-the-record Q & A with Drexel’s Remer in 2019, when she got me excited about the possibility of reimagining how this most historical of cities does its history. Instead, I’ve read the clips and the court filings, because the he-said, she-said in this case is actually a messy distraction. The dispute here isn’t factual so much as philosophical. Council shouldn’t get hoodwinked by the back and forth.

Here, instead, is what Council needs to know: HSP irrevocably gave away its standing, as Orphans’ Court has ruled. Far from a Barnes-like pillorying of a thriving art institution, Drexel’s assumption of this trust is a rescue mission by a private institution acting in the public interest as a matter of fiduciary responsibility. And the notion that a city government has to be in the museum business in order for a city to smartly tell its story is fallacious on its face.

Just last month, we saw Kansas City transfer its historical collection to the nonprofit Kansas City Museum Collection. Other historical entities didn’t cry foul. The legislature didn’t seek 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 both benefits his institution and the public good. Too often in this town, no good civic deed goes unpunished. Let’s thank Drexel, hold it to its legal commitments, and bask in new ways to tell the Philadelphia story.

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