Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Mabel Rosenheck

Mercer Museum

Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) began collecting the tools of preindustrial America in 1897, just as they were becoming irretrievable even from the junk pile. He called his collection “Tools of the Nation Maker” to reflect their purpose and function in everyday life and the construction of the nation. The collection became the centerpiece for the Mercer Museum, which opened in 1916 in a dramatic concrete castle designed by Mercer himself in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In many ways, the museum changed little over the next century with Mercer’s displays and his system of organization intact. However, over time the museum variously interpreted the collection as a dialogue between tradition and progress, a connection between the artisans of the past and the crafters of the present, and a catalyst for a community sense of history.

[caption id="attachment_35368" align="alignright" width="225"]Portrait of Henry Chapman Mercer. Henry Chapman Mercer constructed the Mercer Museum in 1916 to house his collection of preindustrial American tools. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Born in 1856 in Doylestown, Mercer came from a wealthy family and spent most of his life in Bucks County. As a young man, his exposure to the Arts and Crafts Movement through Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) during Mercer’s time at Harvard encouraged an interest in craftsmanship and the preindustrial past. His participation in the founding of the Bucks County Historical Society in 1880 was also a sign of his lifelong interest in local history. Yet an 1876 visit to the Centennial Exhibition’s spectacle of technology and progress equally fostered an emerging interest in the links between the American past, its present, and its future. In addition, his stint as a curator of archaeology at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania from 1894 to 1897 was equally pivotal in forming his attitude toward the importance of collecting objects as historical evidence.

Despite the importance of these varied experiences, in relating the origins of his collection Mercer told a different story. At a meeting of the Bucks County Historical Society in 1907, Mercer explained that one day in February or March of 1897, he went to the country seeking a pair of tongs for an old fireplace, hoping to find them in “penny lots … that is to say valueless masses of obsolete utensils or objects which were regarded as useless.”  However, “when I came to hunt out the tongs from the midst of a disordered pile of old wagons, gum-tree salt-boxes, flax-brakes, straw beehives, tin dinner-horns, rope-machines and spinning-wheels, things that I had heard of but never collectively saw before, the idea occurred to me that the history of Pennsylvania was here profusely illustrated and from a new point of view.” So was born the “Tools of the Nation Maker” collection that soon became Mercer’s museum dedicated to the preindustrial history of the United States as seen through its artifacts. Mercer collected the preindustrial tools of the colonial era that gave birth to the United States, but in doing so he also collected the history of settler colonialism and the European immigrants who used those tools to displace indigenous people and to conquer the North American environment and its natural resources.

The Original Exhibit, 1897

[caption id="attachment_35369" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph, taken between 1980 and 2006, of the Mercer Museum interior. This photograph, taken between 1980 and 2006, shows the interior of the Mercer Museum. Assorted artifacts, including a bellow and carriage wheels, adorn the space. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Mercer and the Bucks County Historical Society installed “Tools of the Nation Maker” in 1897 as an exhibit in the Bucks County Courthouse. As historical artifacts, the tools documented the creation of the nation and the life of a community. As archaeological artifacts, they provided, in Mercer’s words, “a history of our country from the point of view of the work of human hands.” They also represented a moment in time that was rapidly being lost. Mercer focused on saving tools from the era before 1820 and the advent of steam power and industrialization. By saving the artifacts, he hoped to also preserve the work of the past in the face of new modes of industrial production that were rendering obsolete not only the tools but also artisans and their craftsmanship. There seemed to be little nostalgia in Mercer’s work. Mercer collected not to mourn the loss of an idyllic past, but to demonstrate its relevance to human identities, communities, and the nation.

[caption id="attachment_35366" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the West Wing of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, shown in this photograph taken after 1933, reproduced Pennsylvania-German pottery and tiles. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In 1905, Mercer’s aunt left him a large sum of money, which he used to build his home at Fonthill Castle in 1910, the Moravian Tile Works in 1912, and finally the Mercer Museum in 1916. Mercer built all three buildings out of reinforced concrete without blueprints or any other plan besides sketches in his own notebooks. If an error was made in constructing some part of a building, it was torn down completely and rebuilt.

The Mercer Museum’s six-story building “was made for the collection, while the collection was not made for it,” Mercer said. From a central court at the heart of the museum, three floors of galleries spiraled. At each level, rooms and niches of various sizes each displayed dozens of examples of a single type of tool that served a specific function and helped fulfill a specific human need. These moved steadily upwards from tools used to fulfill primary needs on the lower floors—food, clothing, shelter, transport—to secondary needs on the upper floors—religion, art, science, amusement. The objects simultaneously explained human civilization and provided a connection to history by inviting visitors to look at them as tools that made even the smallest, most overlooked aspects of everyday life possible.

In 1923 and again in 1925, Henry Ford (1863-1947) came to Doylestown as research for the museum he was building outside of Detroit. Ford and Mercer shared a concern for salvaging the history of preindustrial America through the everyday artifacts of everyday people. In this, both represented a departure from the professional, university-based field of history that emphasized the military and political campaigns of men like George Washington (1732-99) through documents and writing. Yet Mercer still presented a heroic historical narrative of colonialism, focused instead on celebrating the pioneer spirit of the first European immigrants and those colonists who later set out in Conestoga wagons to conquer the West.

Another Wave of Progress

Upon his death in 1930, Henry Mercer donated the museum and an endowment to the Bucks County Historical Society. Responsibility for its operations passed to the curator, Horace Mann (1890-1951). Mann, like those after him, maintained the museum as a history of everyday people seen through their tools. By the 1950s, new anxieties and aspirations around modern tools and technology echoed Mercer’s earlier ideas, but for a new era. Like the end of the nineteenth century, the 1950s saw new and supposedly improved technologies displace older tools, modes of work, and forms of everyday life in the name of progress. As at the turn of the twentieth century, this also brought with it a turn to the American past and to constructions of the nation, its heritage, and its traditions where white pioneers and their descendants were heroes and non-white people were all but absent. In this context, the Mercer Museum resonated in a society that continued to look forward and back, seeking stories of progress, tradition, and nostalgia that justified current social relationships in order to help manage modern life in the face of social change.

[caption id="attachment_35367" align="alignright" width="213"]Photograph of the Fonthill Castle Library. Henry Chapman Mercer used the money left to him by his aunt to construct Fonthill Castle in 1910. The castle’s library is shown in this photograph, taken after 1933. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The post-World War II era influenced the museum in other ways as well. The growth of Philadelphia suburbs, highways, and car culture made the Mercer Museum a tourist attraction as well as a scholarly resource and a display of local history. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the museum instituted an admission fee and added membership programs, public lectures, and services for school groups. Collections management grew as well, with cataloging the vast collection a perpetual concern. The museum also worked to preserve artifacts, reinstall exhibits, and add labels to make the history Mercer wished to represent legible to nonexpert audiences in a new era.

At the same time, a renewed dedication to demonstrating the functions of these tools also emerged. The first Folkfest, held in 1974, continued into the 2000s as an annual weekend event bringing in craftspeople and reenactors to show off historic practices that ranged from stonecutting and woodworking to folk dancing, calligraphy, and quilting. Workshops and multiweek courses taught some of these practices throughout the year. The emphasis on craft and the appeal to heritage and nostalgia repositioned the meaning of Mercer’s tools, but Folkfest and other events clearly extended Mercer’s understanding that these were not just artifacts, but tools whose uses expressed their purposes.

Museum Expansion

[caption id="attachment_35365" align="alignright" width="243"]Exterior photograph of the Mercer Museum. This photograph shows the exterior of the Mercer Museum sometime between 1980 and 2006. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The museum completed an expansion in 2011 that included classroom space for school groups and exhibit space for temporary displays. Exhibits included displays of the museum’s larger collection as well as exhibits of fine art, contemporary craft, and history, including a new generation of twentieth-century social and cultural history. Although the museum still hosted events with demonstrations and nostalgic, colonial-era activities, in the twenty-first century, more diverse exhibits began to drive programming, many of which incorporated new perspectives—some historical, some artistic, some scientific—on the old collections.

By 2019, the collection contained over forty thousand objects, about doubling what Mercer acquired in his lifetime. Of the sixty rooms that housed exhibits in the 1920s, twenty-four remained as they were, and a total of fifty-five rooms were filled. However, even when objects were reinstalled or rearranged, the organizational logic throughout the core of the museum did not change. The museum continued to collect to fill in gaps in Mercer’s collection, but also expanded its local collections to capture the wider scope of the twentieth century and more recent history. By the twenty-first century, the mission and vision focused less on the specific history of preindustrial tools and work that Mercer wanted to preserve, and emphasized community engagement, a renewed dedication to making the past relevant, and a strong sense of place. The main galleries remained faithful to Mercer’s intentions and his organizational system, but special exhibits and other programming reflected contemporary interpretation of tangible historical trends rather than the abstract history of obsolescence and the changing nature of work.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, lecturer, and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in media and cultural studies from Northwestern University. 

Civil War Museum of Philadelphia

Founded in 1888 by veteran officers of the Civil War, the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia was a monument to those who fought to preserve the United States in the face of rebellion. Originally known as the War Library and Museum, the institution operated in several sites in Philadelphia before settling in a townhouse near Rittenhouse Square from 1922 until 2008, when it closed for financial reasons. In 2016, the museum transferred its three-dimensional collections to the Gettysburg Foundation with artifacts also displayed at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In their new homes, artifacts originally treated as memorial relics—including items from General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85), Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), and lesser-known soldiers and officers—were reinvented in the context of modern exhibits about such topics as slavery, racism, and the broader causes and consequences of the Civil War.

[caption id="attachment_35175" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the MOLLUS Commandry of Pennsylvania outside of General George Meade's headquarters. This 1893 photograph shows the MOLLUS Commandry of Pennsylvania posing outside General George Meade’s headquarters at Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The creation of a Civil War museum in Philadelphia originated with the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), a fraternal association for veteran officers of the Civil War founded in 1865 at the Union League in Philadelphia. The group formed in the wake of the assassination of Lincoln amid fear of a continuation of the Civil War, but when that fear subsided, commemoration became central to the association’s mission. The chartering of the War Library and Museum in 1888 reflected new efforts at remembrance that occurred in part because veterans were aging, but also because in the wake of Reconstruction, the Civil War seemed resolved and so it began to fade from current events into history.

Members of MOLLUS, including John Page Nicholson (1842-1922), who had taken control and revived the organization a decade earlier, chartered the War Library and Museum to collect, preserve, and maintain books and artifacts—“implements, relics, and muniments of war”—pertaining to the “War of the Rebellion.” The library and museum reflected a larger interest in documenting the memories of aging US Army and Navy veterans so as to capture history before it was lost. The urge to collect artifacts from veterans and to write and publish their recollections was also part of a contest over who would get to write the history of the Civil War.

Donations From Veterans

Collections grew throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, primarily from the donations of veterans and MOLLUS members, but the early history of the War Library and Museum revolved mostly around finding a home for itself. The State of Pennsylvania offered $50,000 for construction of a building if MOLLUS could raise $100,000 more. Throughout the 1890s, the group wrote appeals, pursued various locations, and drew up designs for a grand structure that would house offices, banquet halls, and the library and museum. The veterans envisioned a repository of history and material objects, but also a space where they could socialize and reminisce.

At different times, MOLLUS pursued homes in council chambers at Independence Hall, in properties near City Hall, and in a building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, but none of these proved feasible. In 1907, the organization rented rooms in the Flanders Building at Fifteenth and Walnut Streets, and in 1922 it made a permanent home in a townhouse at 1805 Pine Street. The selection of a more modest home was a disappointment, but it enabled building funds to sustain the institution as an endowment for much of the twentieth century.

At the Flanders Building, for the first time, exhibits showcased the collections publicly. The displays included the Tiffany sword and scabbard that General Ulysses S. Grant received after the battle at Vicksburg, a uniform worn by General George Meade (1815-72) at Gettysburg, and casts of Lincoln’s face and hands made by sculptor Leonard Wells Volk (1828-95) just before the war broke out. Visitors could also see the cane Lincoln carried into Ford’s Theater, a tree trunk hit by a cannon ball at Gettysburg, a recruitment drum played outside enlistment headquarters in Philadelphia in 1861, and the paisley smoking jacket worn by Jefferson Davis when he was captured by Union soldiers in 1865.

[caption id="attachment_35174" align="alignright" width="185"]Photograph of the Civil War cavalry officer General Lewis Merrill. General Lewis Merrill, shown in this photograph published between 1880 and 1920, was a cavalry officer during the American Civil War and later served on the Board of Governors for the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Ephemeral items and other personal relics donated by Union veterans contrasted strikingly with other Civil War commemorations in Philadelphia at the time, including the equestrian statues of Meade and General John Reynolds (1820-63) and the Smith Memorial Arch in Fairmount Park. While Nicholson and MOLLUS wanted the library and museum to be similarly monumental, the museum’s collection was a mixture of official military history documented by the uniforms and firearms of commanding officers and a more subtle memory of the Civil War driven by everyday artifacts donated by individuals (albeit mostly officers) that revealed alternative, more personal histories. General Lewis Merrill (1834-96), a member of the museum’s Board of Governors, explained that an institution like theirs “will be a more lasting monument than any one that is built of stone or metal, and will be more influential in telling the truth of history and doing justice to its defender.”

From Private to Public

Debates arose in the 1920s over whether the collection needed to be better interpreted now that veterans (who could recall their own experiences) were dying and MOLLUS membership was passing to descendants, but a catalog to guide visits never emerged. In the members-only museum, the artifacts were largely left to speak for themselves and the library and archives, while available for use, were only partially cataloged or cared for.

MOLLUS remained involved with the museum until the 1970s, when the organization and the museum separated so that each could dedicate more resources to its narrower mission. In 1976, coinciding with the Bicentennial, the museum opened to the public on a day-to-day basis, and in the 1980s special exhibits began to interpret more diverse histories—including those of women or African Americans or even the rebel states—in  addition to the other long-standing displays of the collections.

By the early 2000s, a dwindling endowment and declining visitation threatened the sustainability of the museum. Legal proceedings against former curator Russell Pritchard Jr. (b. 1940) and his son for fraud and theft from a variety of Civil War institutions, including the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, provided further evidence of the museum’s longtime mismanagement. One proposed solution to address the state of the museum would have loaned part of the collection to a planned Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. The backlash in Philadelphia against that idea resulted in a proposal to create a Center for Civil War Studies based at the Union League that would have included partners like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, and the Philadelphia Historical and Museum Commission. The desire, beyond creating an exceptional network of research collections, was to make Philadelphia a destination not just for Revolutionary War tourism, but also for tourism around nineteenth-century history and the Civil War. Plans for such a consortium never came to fruition, nor did another plan for the museum to occupy Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. Continuing the disappointments, in 2002 the State of Pennsylvania pledged $15 million toward a new facility but retracted the funds in 2009 during the recession.

A Dual Emphasis Emerges

[caption id="attachment_35176" align="alignright" width="196"]Portrait depicting the preserved head of Old Baldy. The Grand Army of the Republic Museum loaned the preserved head of General George Meade’s horse, known as Old Baldy, to the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia in 1979. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

While the quest for a new home signaled a desire for a more professional, authoritative institution, appreciation also remained for the small, quirky museum on Pine Street that displayed, among other things, the preserved head of Old Baldy, General Meade’s horse. However, rather than develop either of these identities, in 2003 the institution reemerged as the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum with a new dual emphasis that reflected trends toward more inclusive histories of the Civil War era. With a limited collection of African American materials, the museum turned to living history with actors portraying historical figures including Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913) and Absalom Jones (1746-1818). New outreach resulted in a 2006 program called “Faith and Freedom,” co-produced with black churches. One program featured an actor portraying Jones giving his “Thanksgiving Sermon” at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas

In 2004, a grant from the William Penn Foundation enabled the first complete inventory of the collection, which revealed objects previously unknown to the museum or the nation. In addition to the already celebrated items from well-known figures, the inventory uncovered items like a pocket watch belonging to Brevet Capt. John O. Foering (1843-1933) that was dented by a bullet; a jar of peaches from an orchard on the battlefield of Winchester, Virginia; the tombstone of John Butcher (1845-99), a veteran of the United States Colored Troops; and an 1872 first edition of The Underground Railroad by William Still (1821-1902).

However, none of these developments could save the museum, which closed in 2008. An effort to work with the National Park Service to renovate the Second Bank in Old City to yield a usable space also failed, and ultimately in 2016 the artifact collections transferred to the Gettysburg Foundation—the private, nonprofit partner of Gettysburg National Military Park—with the promise that the National Constitution Center would still display some of the artifacts in Philadelphia. The museum retained the two-dimensional materials, including paintings, lithographs, and books that went on loan to the Union League and remained available to researchers there. Other artifacts—including the head of Old Baldy, which had been on loan from the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Frankford—returned to the GAR Museum, which sustained Civil War memory in Philadelphia, although on a smaller scale.

In 2019, the National Constitution Center opened the exhibit “Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality,” which used Civil War Museum artifacts in an expansive history that explored the context, causes, and consequences of the Civil War. Extending to histories of injustice and violence, the exhibit encompassed causes like slavery and racism and consequences like the Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution and their simultaneous importance and impotence in the face of Jim Crow segregation. At the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum, meanwhile, artifacts from the Philadelphia museum illustrated the story of the Civil War from the perspectives of both the United States and the states that seceded. While the objects added authenticity in service of each institution’s interpretive goals, the new installations also demonstrated the contrast between the polished Civil War tourism of the twenty-first century and the earlier museum’s role as a nineteenth-century reliquary and evocative home for family legacies.

Ultimately, the Civil War Museum faced several hurdles that it could not overcome. By the late twentieth century, Philadelphia museums—especially small, lesser-known museums—were suffering financially. The Civil War Museum’s location was also challenging because Philadelphia never successfully cultivated a Civil War identity or Civil War tourism despite deep connections to that history. However, if, as a fundraising appeal from 1891 argued, the museum was meant to commemorate those “who gave their lives to the war which restored the Union and maintained the Constitution,” then the collections found a fitting final resting place at the National Constitution Center in an exhibit about the simultaneous successes and failures of that document and a more critical memory of the Civil War for a new generation.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, lecturer, and historian in Philadelphia. She works in the museum of the Wagner Free Institute of Science and teaches at Temple University in addition to freelance writing and research. She received her Ph.D. in Media and Cultural Studies from Northwestern University.

Mütter Museum

In 1849, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, following trends in medical education and research, created a museum of anatomy and pathology. After Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-59) donated his world-class collection in 1858, the expanded institution became the Mütter Museum—one of the best medical collections in the city and in the country. Together, as their missions evolved, the museum and the college showed that a collection from the nineteenth century could be engaged in new ways for new visitors, both medical and non-medical. In the twenty-first century, the museum addressed contemporary concerns in the fields of medicine and public health while also documenting the history of science and evoking larger meditations on life, death, and the human body.

[caption id="attachment_33825" align="alignright" width="202"] Thomas Dent Mütter, whose collection of medical specimens helped create one of the most renowned medical museums, was also a skilled and innovative surgeon. (Thomas Jefferson University)[/caption]

Mütter, who graduated from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1831, taught and practiced medicine at Jefferson Medical College as the Chair of Surgery from 1841 until 1856. While doing so, he built the collection of more than a thousand items that he donated to the college along with a $30,000 endowment to maintain the collection and fund a lectureship. Bones, wet preparations, casts, and watercolor paintings dominated the gift, which also included wax preparations, dried preparations, papier-mache models, and oil paintings.

Mütter stipulated that the College of Physicians (founded in 1787) construct a new, fireproof building to house the collection within five years of his donation. In 1863, the requisite building opened at Thirteenth and Locust Streets, and over time the museum’s collections expanded through additional gifts, donations, and purchases. The collections were meant to be educational, but because the Mütter was never part of a medical school they served the continuing education of members of the college more than doctors in training. However, little is known as to how widely members used the museum. Ambivalence about the museum emerged despite the time, money, and other resources put into acquisitions. Upon the centennial of the college in 1887, some, like S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), praised the museum as “one of the most valuable and interesting collections in America.” Others, like W.S.W. Ruschenberger (1807-95), suggested that “many visit the museum merely to gratify curiosity. How many resort to it only for study, or consult it for information alone, has not been ascertained.”

Restrictions on Use of Museum Income

[caption id="attachment_33822" align="alignright" width="300"] The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical society in the United States, hosts the Mütter Museum of medical oddities in its building at Twenty-Second and Ludlow Streets. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Some of the ambivalence resulted from the fact that surplus income from the Mütter endowment could not be used by the college for other purposes. The library in particular needed more space, and library staff as well as many members of the college viewed old pathological specimens as less useful than books and journals containing current information on medical research. While specimens could best teach lessons in older fields like anatomy, books were more useful in emergent laboratory-based fields like bacteriology. Ultimately, the college used income from the endowment to add a third floor that benefited the library as well as the growing museum. The expansion opened in 1886.

By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the college needed still more space and constructed a new building at Twenty-Second and Ludlow Streets. The building, completed in 1909, had dedicated space for the museum, although more room for the library stacks. The design of the exhibit space emulated museums in Europe with an open lower level surrounded by a mezzanine that let natural light into the gallery. Some of the wood and glass display cases likely came from the old location and newer cases resembled the nineteenth-century originals.

[caption id="attachment_33823" align="alignright" width="198"] Dr. Josef Hyrtl’s skull collection, acquired by the Mütter Museum in 1874, helped the Austrian physician discredit phrenology. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The architecture, cabinetry, and specimens remained the same into the twenty-first century—garnering the Mütter a reputation as a museum of a museum. Retained historical exhibits included the American Giant seen alongside Mary Ashberry, a dwarf, and the Hyrtl Skulls organized row upon row for easy comparison and aesthetic appeal. Other displays, such as congenital deformities, survived with the arrangements and labels of an earlier date, but curators added text to explain the labels as historical documents that included past language that had become derogatory and offensive.

Despite the new home established in 1909, the collections languished throughout much of the twentieth century because education and innovation in the medical field shifted to subjects like microbiology, which did not use the same specimens that anatomy and pathology once had. The Mütter’s utility was also limited because medical students still had access to collections at their home institutions and gaining entry to the museum required a discouraging amount of paperwork. However, as part of a medical society rather than a school, the Mütter remained insulated from needs to align with new methods of learning or jettison space-consuming specimens and thus it survived when its peers did not.

Visitation Diversifies

In the mid-twentieth century, curators like Ella Wade (1892-1980) and Elizabeth Moyer (1917-97) cared for the collections and administered visitation permissions to medical schools, nursing schools, and biology classes. By the 1970s, attendance diversified when students from Moore College of Art came to the museum to sketch and other casual, nonmedical visitors came in somewhat greater numbers. A boost came from the 1976 Bicentennial when the Philadelphia Visitor and Convention Guide listed the museum in its brochure, presenting it both as a tourist attraction and as a site of American heritage.

[caption id="attachment_33824" align="alignright" width="300"] Visitors receive a lesson on the “giant” seven-foot-six-inch skeleton on display at the Mütter Museum. Medical specimens like this have helped attract over 180,000 visitors a year to the museum. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Also in the mid-1970s, Gretchen Worden (1947-2004) began her 29-year tenure at the institution, a career that transformed the Mütter Museum into a Philadelphia icon far better known to the public than the College of Physicians. Not all at the college welcomed this development. Despite those members, however, the museum attracted more and more visitors—growing from 1,800 in 1959 to 5,000 annually in the 1980s and to 24,000 in 1997.  It also faced new problems of interpretation. While the medical field had been historically comfortable with the objectification of people with diseases and disabilities—labeling them monstrous and grotesque—nonmedical visitors, new codes of medical ethics, and progressive approaches to museum exhibition changed curatorial strategies.

Confronted by these new interests, the twentieth-century museum had to face its nineteenth-century roots as both a medical institution and as a museum. When the Mütter Museum was established, emerging ideas about medical authority, scientific objectivity, and technologies like photography—which the Mütter collected—had a tendency to overlook the human pain of disease and disability and diminish the individuality of the patient. The museum, with its objects and body parts, had a parallel effect. In addition to reflecting the earlier approach to medical practice, the Mütter Museum developed from a Victorian-era interest in objects as things that could be ordered, controlled, and mastered amidst an unruly and rapidly changing world.

By the late twentieth century, changing ethics in both medicine and museums meant that displays of body parts could seem exploitative, and nonmedical visitors could seem like voyeurs taking pleasure in the disembodied pain of others. Although the collections could still be informative for nonmedical visitors who might view the collections with respect, their spectatorship could also easily look like gawking at diseased bodies for entertainment.

Pathology With an Artistic Bent

Worden’s approach to this problem focused on the collections’ hidden aesthetics. Rather than seeing pathology as ugly, grotesque, or abnormal, she invited art photographers to take pictures of the specimens and to show the body—even the diseased body—as beautiful, as a testament not to horror, but to humanity. New projects, including the calendar she created with artist Laura Lindgren (b. 1959), photography exhibits in the museum, and fellowships for artists to use the museum and library reoriented the collections away from exclusively medical constructions of the body as object and toward conventions of fine art that conveyed respect and fostered reflection.

In the 2000s, curator Anna Dhody (b. 1974) helped the College of Physicians establish exhibits and programs to engage the historic collections with contemporary concerns about public health. A History of Vaccines website launched in 2010. Interpretive labeling evolved. In other programs, LGBTQ+ youth gave tours that used the Hyrtl collection to show the difficulty of identifying gender—much less race—based on bone structure. Additionally, the Mütter Research Institute created in 2014 encouraged modern research with the historic collections.

Begun with a world-class medical collection in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century the Mütter Museum became a relic maintained through inertia and the support of the College of Physicians as a home institution. By the twenty-first century, however, the museum took advantage of its reliquary status and adopted new roles as a document of medical heritage, a meditation on disease, life, and death, and an exploration of the simultaneous beauty and monstrosity of the body and of humanity itself. As a tourist attraction that garnered over 180,000 visitors a year, the museum no longer simply survived within the auspices of the College of Physicians, but helped finance it. Indeed, plans for the expansion of exhibit space announced in 2018 demonstrated that the museum was driving not only the public identity and financial security of the College of Physicians but also broader conversations about public health and public history.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in media and cultural studies from Northwestern University and works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, Temple University, and elsewhere.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art—originally known as the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art—developed from collections exhibited in 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park. Modeled on the South Kensington Museum in London, the new institution sought through both collections and classes to teach design so that goods produced in Philadelphia would be more competitive with those made in Europe. By the 1920s, however, the museum shifted its emphasis toward cultivating elite taste as it constructed a monumental new building, acquired landmark collections, and courted wealthy patrons. With 90 percent of its collection acquired from donors but also a longstanding, if declining, financial relationship with Philadelphia’s city government and the Fairmount Park Commission, the museum negotiated a tension familiar to most art museums between the aesthetic values of high-society collectors and a charitable mission to enhance public life through art.

[caption id="attachment_33848" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial photograph showing the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a Greek Revival building, and surrounding environment. Originally located in Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, the museum moved into its current location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1928. Architects designed the Greek Revival building as a shell in which the museum could gradually build galleries for new collections. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art was founded in 1876 and opened to the public in Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall in 1877, but members of the Fairmount Park Commission had discussed the idea even earlier. The Centennial brought the museum idea to fruition as members of the semiautonomous Park Commission, other city officials, and appointees to the federally authorized Centennial Commission worked together to stage the Exhibition. A combination of the Park Commission, the City, and museum trustees continued to make decisions—and to complicate decision-making—about the institution throughout its history.

The Museum and School of Industrial Art arrived at a moment of change both in American history and in the history of museums. The Centennial Exhibition, while celebrating the history of American independence, also promoted the country and the city of Philadelphia as progressive, post-Civil War societies at the forefront of modernity and the Industrial Revolution. However, when Americans compared themselves to their European counterparts in science, industry, or art, they often feared they were lacking. During this period, elites generally designed museums as sites for the middle and upper classes to cultivate or prove their good taste. At the Museum and School of Industrial Art, however, the decorative objects retained from the Centennial were also a teaching collection viewed by working people—factory laborers, artisans, and industrial designers—who might be inspired to make and consume better, more beautiful industrial goods.

Much like the Academy of Natural Sciences (founded in 1812) and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (founded in 1877), the Museum and School of Industrial Art organized its collections scientifically and systematically. Large glass cases in Memorial Hall displayed arrays of artifacts according to function and material, progressing through time. However, over the next few decades, the collections began to change. The 1893 bequest of Anna H. Wilstach (1822-92) to the Fairmount Park Commission and to the museum began the institution’s move toward fine art. The paintings she donated were valuable, but the $500,000 discretionary fund she left for purchases had even more dramatic impact. Over time, the bequest led to nearly one thousand acquisitions including innovative masterpieces by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), an African American.

Prominent Philadelphia Donors

[caption id="attachment_33851" align="alignright" width="300"]life-sized figures of Indian deities carved into stone pillars with ornate decorations. These life-sized figures carved into the pillars of the Pillared Temple Hall represent deities and characters from important Hindu texts the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The temple fragments came to the museum from the Madana Gopala Swamy Temple in the south Indian city of Madurai in 1919, after a wealthy Philadelphian purchased them while on her honeymoon. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Other valuable collections of Western art followed in the early twentieth century, including those of William L. Elkins (1832-1903), an oil and transportation magnate, and his son George W. Elkins (1858-1919); John Howard McFadden (1850–1921), a wealthy cotton merchant; and John G. Johnson (1841-1917), a lawyer for corporations like Standard Oil, Baldwin Locomotive, and United States Steel. These men—some of them also powerful Fairmount Park commissioners with vested interests in the museum already— officially bequeathed their collections to the city and the Park Commission, but the museum then cared for and exhibited them. All the donors were prominent Philadelphians and very wealthy, but also philanthropic and civic-minded. Johnson, whose collection of European Renaissance art was the biggest prize out of any acquired at this time, said in his will: “I have lived my life in this City. I want the collection to have its home here.”

Elkins and McFadden made their bequests contingent on the creation of a new building to house them, and further donations of collections made more space in a grander setting, closer to City Hall, a priority. By 1917, the museum trustees and staff finalized plans to leave Memorial Hall for a new building on the almost-completed parkway extending from City Hall to Fairmount Park. Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938), Paul Cret (1876-1945), and the firm of Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary designed the building collaboratively with labor by numerous others including perspective drawings by Julian Abele (1881-1950), a rare opportunity for an African American architect at that time.

In 1928, the eclectic Greek Revival building opened at a cost to the city of $12 million. Because the building sat on city land, the Fairmount Park Commission managed it with city funds. When seeking financial donations, some of the museum’s leadership emphasized the new building as a matter of civic pride for all citizens. Yet for museum president Eli Kirk Price (1860-1933), such a monumental building also served to “encourage men who already have bought pictures to give them to the museum.”  In the spirit of both cutting costs and encouraging Price’s donors, the building was strategically constructed as a massive shell into which the museum could gradually build galleries for new collections. Those empty galleries could promise donors that their collections would not go into storage, but they also became a promise that the city would not just support public space in its parks, but also elite taste in its museums.

A New Organizational Scheme

[caption id="attachment_33849" align="alignright" width="300"]Interior of eighteenth-century parlor room with portraits on the walls, blue furniture, a fireplace, and a crystal chandelier. Among the period rooms installed under director Fiske Kimbell, the plaster ceiling decoration and architectural woodwork in this photograph are the surviving elements of the parlor room of Philadelphia Mayor Samuel Powel’s eighteenth-century house. In the parlor, considered the best room in the house, Powel hosted many important occasions, including George and Martha Washington’s twentieth wedding anniversary party. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Starting in 1925, director Fiske Kimball (1888-1955) oversaw the building of galleries and the donation and purchase of new collections, but he also implemented a new organizational scheme for the works displayed in the new building. The new exhibits were not a systematic array, but a history of art. The second floor used masterworks to show the evolution of European art from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Kimball also innovated in embedding period rooms that further illuminated this chronology. While other museums staged rooms to represent specific times and places, Kimball began importing whole architectural elements to create context for furnishings and art. Combined with his floor-wide history of art, the museum became a “walk through time” both within and across galleries. By the mid-1930s, Asian galleries in the South Wing housed art from India, China, Japan, and Iran but offered little explanation as to how they fit into the grand narrative and inevitable march of Western progress portrayed elsewhere in the museum.

The first floor, meanwhile, presented “study collections.” In the South Wing, these more in-depth exhibits included displays of decorative arts that followed in the tradition of the original Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. The works in the North Wing focused on specific eras and areas of Western art, but tellingly, maps for visitors labeled the galleries by collector with subject matter indicated in secondary text. Thus, while the South Wing’s curation reflected the institution’s original educational intention, the arrangement of the North Wing, much like the architecture of the museum, catered to wealthy donors. The new building contained these study collections, but it did not house the school. Although the two were still officially connected, by 1938 the institutions became the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) located on the Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art located on South Broad Street.

Despite the museum’s dwindling relationship to the school, other kinds of outreach extended to the public. Under Kimball the museum founded a Division of Education in 1929 and in 1931 opened a short-lived branch at Sixty-Ninth Street Terminal in conjunction with the Carnegie Foundation and a developer in West Philadelphia. Long-lasting affiliations that began in the 1920s included two Fairmount Park historic houses (Cedar Grove and Mount Pleasant) and the Rodin Museum on the Parkway. In 1944, the museum established another enduring relationship by agreeing to administer the Fleisher Art Memorial at Eighth and Catharine Streets. Fleisher’s free classes, unlike those at the School of Industrial Art, taught art as recreation not profession.

Progress Even During the Depression

Although not immune to the impact of the Great Depression, the PMA completed dozens of galleries throughout the 1930s to house acquisitions such as the Edmond Foulc Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Art. Much of this construction occurred with help from New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration. The museum also gained artworks, especially African American prints, from the Public Works of Art Project. While the PMA’s finances suffered in the 1930s, it continued to spend, and some raised questions about whether art was a worthy cause when so many people were out of work and hungry. Among those raising these questions in the early 1930s were Mayor Harry A. Mackey (1869-1938) who, with City Council, controlled much of the museum’s budget. Cartoonists at The Philadelphia Record echoed those concerns when the museum bought Cézanne’s The Bathers for $110,000 in 1937.

[caption id="attachment_33847" align="alignright" width="244"]Mannequin wearing white wedding dress with lace details, a wreath-shaped crown, and matching clutch. This seemingly simple wedding dress contains many details, including lace with floral motifs, seed peal accents, and a crownlike wreath headpiece. The dress belonged to actress and Philadelphia native Grace Kelly, who donated it to the museum in 1956 after marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

During the Kimball era, the museum made huge acquisitions including an intact French Medieval cloister, but the emphasis on recreating the past concerned some who felt the museum was falling behind by not collecting more innovative modern art. The museum acquired some modern works—like The Bathers and the photography collection of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)—in the 1940s. It was later, in the 1950s, that the Walter and Louise Arensberg Collection—including many works by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)—and the A. E. Gallatin Collection (also known as The Museum of Living Art) established the PMA as a major repository of modern and contemporary art.

The Arensberg and Gallatin collections, donated from outside Philadelphia, demonstrated the growing reputation of the PMA and the work it contained. The Arensbergs, for example, selected the PMA because they believed their collection would be most valued and do the most good in Philadelphia. Some Philadelphia collectors, however, spurned the museum. Joseph Widener (1871-1943)—a Philadelphian who was heir to his father’s transportation fortune and had longstanding, multigenerational connections to the city and the museumslighted Philadelphia and in 1942 opted to enshrine himself and his collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. With the opposite motivation, yet similar result, in 1922 Albert Barnes (1872-1951) created his own educational foundation so his collection might be used to combat the elitism of the art world in general and Kimball’s PMA in particular.

The First Admission Fee, 35 cents

In 1962, the museum which was previously free began to charge an admission fee of 35 cents, but during that decade it also expanded its education programs for adults and schoolchildren, and in 1970 it created a Department of Urban Outreach (DUO). If the admission fee made the museum less accessible, programs like DUO’s murals and other public works made it more so.

 Throughout the 1970s, the museum responded to other trends in the museum world as well. It added visitor-centered amenities like a restaurant and air conditioning. It also began hosting more blockbuster shows featuring recognizable artists like Duchamp and Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90). However, the PMA was more often an early adopter than an innovator. Although the museum’s founding as a school for industrial designers once set it apart from institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, by 1964 the school officially separated from the museum, eventually becoming known as the University of the Arts.

The d’Harnoncourt Era

In 1982, Anne d’Harnoncourt (1943-2008), a Duchamp scholar and longtime modern art curator at the museum, became director. She continued to build the modern and contemporary collections with major acquisitions by artists such as Cy Twombly (1928-2011) and Bruce Nauman (b. 1941). She also acquired the Muriel and Philip Berman Collection of prints and drawings by old masters and presided over a 1989 legal victory that allowed the Johnson collection to be integrated into the collections at large. This led to reorganizing the European art galleries in an even more monumental narrative of Western masterpieces that better realized Kimball’s vision of exhibiting the paintings as a walk through time and a march of progress. While more spectacular according to many standards because of the quality of the work, the exhibits changed little about the standard narrative of art history. In contrast, the African American Collections Committee, created in 2001 for the museum’s 125th anniversary, made the collections more inclusive by purchasing works that filled gaps where other donors failed to collect.

[caption id="attachment_33846" align="alignright" width="241"]Oil painting depicting a surgeon surrounded by assistants in an amphitheater performing an operation on a patient's thigh. In 2007, the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a partnership with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts purchased The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins’ iconic painting of a surgery being performed in Philadelphia, for $68 million. This purchase epitomized the museum’s dedication to fine art and the city at a time when Philadelphia was investing less in its cultural institutions. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

In many ways, d’Harnoncourt continued in the tradition of Kimball as she expanded the reputation of the PMA and Philadelphia as an elite center of art collecting and exhibition. The $68 million joint effort with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2007 to purchase Thomas Eakins’ (1844-1916) The Gross Clinic when Thomas Jefferson University wanted to sell it epitomized a dedication to fine art and the city at a time when the city was perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy and investing less and less in its cultural institutions. Yet the Gross Clinic campaign to keep the iconic painting in Philadelphia also showed commitment to an art world steeped equally in money and taste as in public service and inclusive civic pride. Likewise, the addition of the Perelman Building on Pennsylvania Avenue primarily provided more space for existing collections, although it also held the promise of being a more flexible and more community-oriented space than the museum’s main temple on the hill.

Plans for an expansion designed by Frank Gehry (b. 1929) began during d’Harnoncourt’s tenure, then commenced construction in 2017 under the directorship of Timothy Rub (b. 1952). It continued projects undertaken since the 1970s to make the museum more welcoming to visitors, especially those with cars, and easier to navigate both inside and out. At the same time, digital initiatives and educational outreach promised to expand the reach of the museum in ways that paralleled earlier efforts to create audio guides for the galleries, develop curriculum for schools, and provide distance programs through teleconferencing and telephones.

The Iconic Museum Steps

The museum, a home to 240,000 priceless objects and an ongoing recipient of funding from the city which owned its building, always identified itself as a civic institution for Philadelphians. This extended to the museum’s most visible public space, the iconic seventy-two steps leading up to the museum’s Parkway-facing entrance. With a spectacular view of City Hall down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the steps became a must-see attraction for tourists, the lead-in on sports broadcasts and other televised events, and shorthand for the city in popular media. However, this was as much because of Rocky Balboa’s training montage in the Oscar-winning film Rocky (1976) as it was because of John Johnson or Fiske Kimball. Instead of creating literal common ground between elite, private benefactors and a broader public, a debate emerged over where the statue of Rocky donated by actor and star of the movie Sylvester Stallone (b. 1946) should stand. Many at the museum argued that it was a movie prop, not properly art, and the statue spent years at the Spectrum arena in South Philadelphia before being placed not at the top of the steps but at the bottom in 2006. This was revealing of how the museum negotiated the interests of different audiences who sometimes struggled to find common ground in fine art, especially when the icons of one class could be pushed to the side to legitimate those of the other.

Despite the snub of Rocky, the PMA embraced more accessible, community-driven interpretations of its collections and the broader role of the art museum. A cheeky ad campaign from 2017 featured nonchalant visitor commentary—Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man was captioned, “I think he’s throwing some serious shade”—that sanctioned laughter at the obscurity of high cultural taste. Even more progressively, the “Philadelphia Assembled” exhibit, also in 2017, combined art and civic engagement. As an example of the museum’s efforts to become more politically relevant to a changing society, the exhibit gave space—albeit only at the Perelman Building—to individuals and organizations to create stories of resistance and community building, challenging the cultural hierarchies of the past and sharing authority with a more inclusive community.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art in most ways fit the paradigm of the encyclopedic art museum as it had existed in Europe and North America since the nineteenth century. It had unique origins in education and industrial design, but it quickly fell into the patterns of similar institutions that showcased monumental narratives of Western art. Over time it became more inclusive with programs to sponsor public art and to acquire and exhibit more art by women and people of color, although funding, purchases, and outreach programs to under-served communities could only begin to address the history of an institution whose world-renowned collection reflected the hierarchical tastes of elite donors and curators. By the twenty-first century, exhibition and program strategies sought to mobilize the museum and its collections in multiple and sometimes surprising ways, despite the heritage they most visibly embodied.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in media and cultural studies from Northwestern University and works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, Temple University, and elsewhere. 

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum)

The Penn Museum—officially the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—originated in 1887 through the combined efforts of university scholars, administrators, and Philadelphia philanthropists. Created as part of a broader movement to expand, modernize, and professionalize the university, throughout its history the museum also performed a public role of bringing ancient and far away cultures to Philadelphia for both academic research and spectacular display. Although always an independent entity, the museum also served the mission of the affiliated university through its roles in scholarly innovation, collegiate education, and outreach to the public. In the twenty-first century, as museums and the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology became more critical about the ways they represented nonwhite and non-Western cultures, the Penn Museum reconsidered the form and content of its dual academic and public roles.

[caption id="attachment_33773" align="alignright" width="232"]A black and white portrait of William Platt Pepper University of Pennsylvania Provost William Platt Pepper, shown in this 1902 portrait, funded an expedition to the ancient city of Nippur conducted between 1889 and 1900. The artifacts recovered on this journey were displayed in the university library and formed the basis of the Penn Museum. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The idea for the museum originated in 1887, when John Punnett Peters (1852-1921), a professor of Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, persuaded University Provost William Pepper (1843-98) to fund an expedition to the Sumerian city of Nippur in modern-day Iraq. In agreeing to do so, Pepper stipulated that anything Peters collected would be held at the university in a new museum. The museum, the expedition, and the scholarship that resulted combined anthropology—the study of man, his origins, and the evolution of human culture—with archaeology, a field rooted in the search for evidence to verify Greek mythology, the Bible, and other founding myths of Western, Christian civilization.

The museum created to house the fruits of the Sumerian expedition and other collections had its first home in the Furness Library on the university’s new West Philadelphia campus from 1890 until 1899. It then moved to its permanent home in a stylishly eclectic building designed by a team led by Wilson Eyre (1858-1944). Although the university held the collections and faculty members often led expeditions, funding for the museum and its collecting efforts came primarily from independent groups like the Babylonian Exploration Fund, the Egypt Exploration Society, and the University Archaeological Association. These organizations were usually headed by prominent, wealthy Philadelphia philanthropists who continued to be a key source of income throughout the museum’s history.

Museum’s Dual Purposes

The institution’s original name, the Free Museum of Art and Science, reflected its interdisciplinarity and dual purposes. For researchers, the museum housed and displayed artifacts of human culture as scientific resources. At the time, anthropology and archaeology were not the interpretive, liberal arts fields that they later became, but were disciplines dedicated to systematic classification and scientific observation. However, while scholars and researchers used the collections for science, public displays also enriched the museum experience for visitors and allowed those who felt welcome to demonstrate their elite aesthetic taste. As was typical of endeavors in anthropology and archaeology, the museum sought to demonstrate both similarities and differences among diverse communities. Many cultures were collected under one roof, but their arrangement reinforced ideological hierarchies by presenting an inevitable march of human progress and creating contrasts between supposedly primitive crafts and civilized tastes. In Philadelphia, this was reflected in curatorial and architectural choices that saw ethnological artifacts collected from indigenous people arranged on the lowest floor and archaeological collections of Greek, Roman, and Babylonian civilizations on the floors above. It tied a literal, physical march from bottom to top to an intellectual and ideological one.

In 1913, the museum officially changed its name to the University Museum, a step in a gradual evolution of the institution’s relationship to the University of Pennsylvania and a sign of the shifting composition of the Board of Managers. The university always housed the collections, making them available to staff and students for teaching and research, but the museum operated independently. Curators and leaders of expeditions sometimes, but not always, had appointments as faculty members, and likewise the Department of Anthropology sometimes, but not always, operated out of the museum. Although officially separate, administrative control over museum matters like hiring and firing shifted to the university in the early twentieth century—coinciding with the name change. Financial contributions from the university began in the 1930s, and by the 1980s Penn exclusively appointed the museum’s Board of Overseers. While administrative and financial control shifted, the hybrid public-academic nature of the museum remained constant throughout its history..

[caption id="attachment_33772" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the main entrance of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The photograph is taken through the iron gates and shows a formal garden with hedge rows and a reflecting pond with a stone bench in the foreground. Cherry trees in bloom flanking the front door. The rapidly expanding museum collections necessitated the construction of a dedicated display space in the late 1890s. The new building, designed by a team led by architect Wilson Eyre, opened in 1899 and boasted gardens, artifact laboratories, and lecture spaces in addition to galleries. (Photograph by E. Mencher for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the first half of the twentieth century, as the museum and the fields of anthropology, ethnology, and archaeology grew, so did the museum. Ethnographic expeditions, excavations of ancient artifacts, and acquisitions through purchase grew the collections and programs of research and display. While the research had academic value, these exotic objects also came from areas of the world that were colonized by Western empires—and thus were embedded in problematic politics recognized only later by most American curators and scholars. Those politics periodically came to the fore, especially during the breakup of empires in the mid-twentieth century. In Latin America, where the museum conducted work throughout the twentieth century, local interest in heritage, tourist dollars, and the struggle for post-colonial power drove governments to control archaeological research more tightly over time. This impacted the intellectual trajectories of anthropology and archaeology, and it led expeditions like those of the University Museum to become somewhat more collaborative.

The Louis Shotridge Era

In the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most important curators at the museum—although never a professor at the university—was Louis Shotridge (1882-1935), a Tlingit Indian from the Pacific Northwest. Conducting salvage ethnographies, Shotridge collected and documented languages and traditions at risk of being destroyed by settler colonialism and government policies that criminalized indigenous culture and decimated native populations. On the one hand, Shotridge assured that some part of indigenous culture—in some cases his own culture—would survive. On the other hand, he knew the institution where he worked took sacred objects and sterilized them, that it interpreted indigenous people as primitive savages, and that it expected nonwhite scholars like himself to assimilate themselves and their scholarship into the authoritative voice of academic institutions.

After World War II, old tensions between white, Western scholars and post-colonial or third-world nations arose, but they were sometimes addressed in new ways. Research continued to be largely generated and validated by elite European and American institutions with systems of knowledge and hierarchical classification that changed little from the nineteenth century, but museums also became more dedicated to leaving artifacts in their places of origin so they might be interpreted and appreciated by the communities from which they came as well as being used in scholarship.

[caption id="attachment_33777" align="alignright" width="190"]A black and white photograph of Froelich G. Rainey standing in front of a colossal ancient bust of Ramses the second of Egypt. The statue wears a crown adorned with a rearing cobra. Anthropologist Froelich Gladstone Rainey served as director of the Penn Museum from 1947 to 1976. During his tenure the museum enacted the Pennsylvania Declaration, which condemned the purchase of artifacts without a pedigree and called for the return of looted items. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

At the same time, the black market for antiquities, fostered by the poverty of so-called third world nations and by the exploding value of artifacts in commercial markets, also challenged museums in the post-World War II era. In 1970, the University Museum under director Froelich Rainey (1907-92) influenced acquisitions policies throughout the museum field by issuing the Pennsylvania Declaration, which pledged to end the purchase of artifacts without “a pedigree—that is information about the different owners of the objects, place of origin, legality of export, and other data useful in each individual case." The statement called attention to the complex question of ownership: Was the object obtained “legally” or was there proof that it had been looted? Ultimately, in addition to restricting new acquisitions, the museum returned objects to countries including Italy, Turkey, and Peru. In 2008, the museum created the Penn Cultural Heritage Center to address related issues.

Repatriating Collected Objects

The U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) enacted in 1990 provided the most effective and widely enforced mechanism to address the concerns of indigenous people in the United States with regard to cultural heritage. For the University Museum, between 1990 and 2016, this federal law led to twenty-five tribes successfully filing claims to have human remains and other religious objects returned to them from the museum’s collections.

The University Museum—which by 1996 was rebranded as the Penn Museum to make its institutional affiliation clearer—also confronted the complex issues of who should tell the stories of objects on display. Historically, Western museums presented narratives of hierarchical evolution and inevitable progress that either demonstrated continuities between ancient and modern societies or juxtaposed “primitive” and “civilized” cultures in ways that justified colonialism and racism. By the twenty-first century, however, museums like Penn’s sought to generate more understanding and appreciation of diversity and inclusion even though white, Western academic standards of science and objectivity tended to remain the arbiters of knowledge and worth.

[caption id="attachment_33780" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a man holding a mask, which a young boy is painting. Another young boy stands nearby and watches. As attitudes towards other cultures shifted, the museum moved to incorporate Native American voices into its educational program. This 1972 photograph shows Jimmy Johnny, a representative from the Salish Tribe of British Columbia, teaching two boys how to paint a traditional Salish mask. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In 2014, a reimagining of the Penn Museum’s North American gallery caught up with trends toward sharing authority for exhibit development with indigenous people. “Native American Voices” challenged old, racist narratives by representing native people as alive and thriving while also acknowledging how American and European colonialism decimated these communities and their cultures. For this exhibit, museum curators consulted with indigenous leaders, which resulted in a richer, more multivocal, and inclusive exhibit. Nevertheless, the museum clearly retained authority.

Other exhibit strategies focused on bringing more diverse voices and more relevant themes into the museum’s interpretation of its archaeological collections. Reinstalled Middle East galleries opened in 2018 with a focus on urbanization, and plans called for future renovations, restorations, and reinstallations of the Africa and Mesoamerica galleries, the Harrison Auditorium, and the Egyptian wing. A Global Guides program, initiated in 2018, incorporated the varied perspectives of contemporary Philadelphians who were immigrants and refugees from the areas of ancient cities excavated by the museum. Plans for renovation of the museum’s 1899 building, scheduled to continue through 2021, sought to create an increasingly visitor-centered institution with improvements including climate control, better way-finding, and more elevators.

In the twenty-first century, the Penn Museum faced the challenge of how to use old collections, many of which were collected in exploitative, colonial contexts, to tell new stories that incorporated communities and perspectives that the museum historically marginalized. Although hindered by its own history and the colonial history of its disciplines, new strategies were making this museum more engaged, and visitorship, especially for special events that showcased diverse cultural traditions, reflected that. William Pepper’s idea to create a museum that served both the university and the people of Philadelphia was being realized in new ways for a new era. Indeed, the institution whose mission was to explore “the human story: who we are and where we come from” was gradually and powerfully beginning to reassess who we are, who gets to speak for us, and where we get to do so.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, lecturer, and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in Media and Cultural Studies from Northwestern University and now works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science and elsewhere.

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

In 1938, the City of Philadelphia amended its charter to create a museum that would collect the city’s material culture and display it for the public. The institution, long known as the Atwater Kent Museum, took its name from radio manufacturer A. Atwater Kent (1873-1949), who purchased and donated the former Franklin Institute building on South Seventh Street for such a purpose. Although older institutions like the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania also documented the history of the city, the Atwater Kent Museum—renamed the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent in 2010—placed its focus on showcasing historical artifacts for the public. Prior to announcing it would close to the public for financial reasons on June 30, 2018, the museum, its exhibits, and its staff encouraged visitors to use objects to find connections between their lives and the ongoing history of the city.

[caption id="attachment_31656" align="alignright" width="288"]Photograph of Atwater Kent Radio manufacturer Atwater Kent, pictured in 1925, purchased the former Franklin Institute building for the local history museum that carried his name. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Atwater Kent Museum was the second museum dedicated to the history of an individual American city, after the Museum of the City of New York (opened in 1924). Around the same time, other private organizations like the New-York Historical Society and the Chicago Historical Society also created city museums out of antiquarian collections. Unlike those others, however, Philadelphia city government funded the Atwater Kent as the official museum of the city, and its board of trustees included representatives from City Council and the Mayor’s Office alongside members from cultural and academic organizations.

The museum officially opened in 1941 in the building Kent had purchased, a building designed for the Franklin Institute in 1826 by neoclassical architect John Haviland (1792-1852). The institute vacated the premises in 1933 to move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Kent’s purchase gave the city a museum, but it also saved the Philadelphia landmark from being bought by Henry Ford (1863-1947) and moved to his collection of historical buildings in Dearborn, Michigan. During the early years of the new city history museum, its collections included artifacts acquired directly from the City, Works Progress Administration (WPA) dioramas, dolls from the Society of Colonial Dames, artifacts from the Friends’ Historical Association, and furnishings from the Bank of North America that had been rescued from a Pennsylvania Railroad warehouse.

Evolving Approaches to Displays

[caption id="attachment_31657" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of museum building The original home of the Franklin Institute, built in 1826 and pictured here in 1972, became home to the Atwater Kent Museum. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

By the 1950s, the museum employed diverse display strategies with audiovisual components, dioramas, and period rooms as well as smaller objects displayed in Art Deco cases. The museum arranged items like toy dolls, nineteenth-century bonnets, and newspapers much the way an art museum showcases decorative objects or the way an anthropology museum organizes exhibitions with discrete, if related, artifacts. Without grand continuous narratives, large-scale objects, and life-size photographs, the Atwater Kent did not yet offer the immersive exhibits that later characterized many history museums.

In its formative years, the museum maintained these exhibits and initiated educational programs to “enable the students in civics and history classes to see that they are a part of Philadelphia life and that they hold a tangible stake in the community’s present and future.” In the 1970s, inspired by the spirit of the Bicentennial, the museum returned to these ideas with a sweeping permanent exhibit covering the three-hundred-year history of the city as well as rotating galleries that traced the development of the city through its municipal services. Mainstays included exhibits about the Fire Department, Police Department, and the local gas and electric companies. The museum also presented temporary urbanist exhibits such as “Fairmount Water Works 1812-1979,” “Fairmount Park,” and “Streets & Squares: 300 Years of Philadelphia Maps & Map-Making.”

At the Atwater Kent, curators used material objects to explore social and structural relationships, document histories of urban planning, and offer systemic perspectives on everyday life in Philadelphia. However, the interaction between people and the city still formed the heart of these exhibits even when they examined seemingly impersonal infrastructures. This emphasis reflected the museum’s increasing attention to the trends of historical scholarship during the 1960s and 1970s, especially the call to write history that included the full range of society rather than simply repeating oft-told stories of great men. The Atwater Kent in this era did little, however, to incorporate people of color into civic narratives, a role taken up separately by the African American Museum created by the city in 1976.

Adapting to the Digital Age

The museum continued to stress the importance of authentic artifacts even in the digital age, for example opening  “The Real Thing and Why It Matters” in 2005. This exhibit reemphasized the institution’s ongoing role as the home for Philadelphia’s material culture. Between 2002 and 2009, the Atwater Kent also took on stewardship of the art and artifacts collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which had chosen to focus on its role as a research library. At the same time, however, financial and operational challenges mounted. From the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the museum received less and less funding from a city that was both financially strapped and less willing to fund arts and culture initiatives than it had in the past. The Atwater Kent had been fully funded by the city from 1938 until 1995, but by 2015 less than 20 percent of the museum’s budget came from municipal sources.

[caption id="attachment_31639" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of event on floor covered by a map of Philadelphia. After the Philadelphia History Museum's renovation in 2009-12, the first floor featured a massive map of Philadelphia, visible here during the 2014 Public History Community Forum, a gathering of students, faculty, and professionals from around the region. (Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia photograph)[/caption]

An expensive renovation of the Atwater Kent’s historic building compounded its financial dilemma. Started in 2009, the renovation stretched from an expected one year to three, and the cost ballooned from an estimated $1.5 million to $5.7 million due to unexpected structural issues and expanded plans. During that period, the museum drew attention, much of it negative, for selling art and artifacts to fund the modernization. The museum defended the sales by arguing that artworks lay beyond the scope of its collecting as a history museum and that local items should take priority even if they did not have the same monetary value as other collectors’ items. In this spirit, a portrait by Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) and trade figures including a beloved cigar store Indian went to new owners while the museum installed exhibits such as “Face to Facebook” and the community-curated Philadelphia Voices gallery.

After completing the renovations, the museum reopened in 2012 as the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. As part of a broader reimagination of the museum, the name change adopted in 2010 signaled to visitors what they would find inside. The sale of art and artifacts refined the relationship between the museum’s mission and the collections, but, just as importantly, the auctions funded updates to the system of climate control to assure the preservation of the museum’s artifacts and others on loan. New displays reinterpreted the city’s three-hundred-year narrative with audiovisual technologies that incorporated contemporary perspectives on the city from everyday people of more diverse backgrounds than the museum had ever represented before, including African Americans, immigrants, and other groups. In addition, digital and interactive technologies brought the museum into the twenty-first century by providing new ways for visitors to engage with historical objects while preserving an emphasis on learning from material culture.

Encouraging Visitor Engagement

[caption id="attachment_31635" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of a woven wampum belt. the belt itself is a tan color with darker diagonal lines a a depiction of two human silhouettes holding hands This wampum belt, exhibited by the Philadelphia History Museum, was said to be given to William Penn by the Lenapes at the time of the 1682 treaty. (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent)[/caption]

Maintaining the museum’s focus on engaging visitors through material culture, the reopened museum offered a new permanent exhibit titled “The Ordinary, Extraordinary, and the Unknown: The Power of Objects.” In a traditional white-walled gallery, curators placed artifacts like the Wampum belt believed to have been given by the Lenape to William Penn (1644-1718) and a desk that belonged to George Washington (1732-99) together with horrific items like slave shackles and pop cultural items like the boxing gloves used by Joe Frazier (1944-2011). Rather than simply describing whom the items belonged to and what they were for, the exhibit drew on new approaches to public history by asking visitors to imagine the many stories that objects can tell depending on who is looking at them, when, where, and why.

Still, the Philadelphia History Museum struggled for sustainability. Although adjacent to Independence National Park, a destination for millions of visitors every year, the Philadelphia History Museum drew far fewer visitors to its exhibits about the urban environment and the more recent history of the birthplace of the United States. Its quest for funding paled in comparison to the $120 million raised to open a new Museum of the American Revolution in 2017. Seeking new ways to sustain its operations, in 2015 the museum investigated a potential merger with the Woodmere Art Museum with the support of a large grant from the William Penn Foundation, but the partnership ultimately did not move forward. A second merger attempt with Temple University also collapsed, leading the museum to announce it would close its doors as of June 30, 2018, for an unspecified period of time. The action left in doubt the fate of the collections--the true legacy of the institution--and interrupted more than seventy-five years of public access to the museum's powerful juxtaposition of traditional symbols of the nation with the everyday popular culture of an American city.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in media and cultural studies from Northwestern University and works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science. 

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