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.

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)

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

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)

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.

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)

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

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)

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.

Copyright 2018, Rutgers University


A. Atwater Kent

Library of Congress

Arthur Atwater Kent Sr. (1873-1949), pictured here in 1925, was an inventor and businessman who revolutionized American radio manufacturing. Kent moved from Massachusetts to Philadelphia in 1902 to run an electronic component shop. His early-1900s inventions, including an automobile ignition system and fuel gauge, became popular enough to necessitate a larger factory space at Stenton Street.

Business grew steadily throughout the 1910s and early 1920s as demand continued for automotive parts. A 1921 wartime contract for radio components led Kent to develop complete radio sets aimed at wider markets. By 1925, his company was the largest radio manufacturer in the nation, creating nearly one million sets at its 1929 peak. An accompanying radio program, the Atwater Kent Hour, proved extremely popular and the Philadelphia plant eventually expanded to 30 acres.

During the Great Depression, consumers shifted their focus to more affordable radio sets, leading Kent’s company to close in 1936. However, Kent’s accumulated wealth allowed him to support philanthropic causes, including his 1938 purchase of the building that became the Atwater Kent Museum (renamed the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent in 2010). By his 1949 death, Kent held over 90 patents.

A Historic Building for a History Museum

Library of Congress

English-born architect John Haviland (1792-1852) designed several Philadelphia buildings in the early 1800s, including the Walnut Street Theater, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the original home of the Franklin Institute science museum, shown here in a 1972 photograph by the Historic American Buildings Survey. This Greek-Revival style structure served as the Institute’s home from 1826 to 1933.

When the Franklin Institute moved to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1933, the building was in danger of demolition. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford (1863-1947) offered to move the façade to his museum site in Michigan, but Mayor S. Davis Wilson (1881-1939) and the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks instead reached out to radio manufacturer A. Atwater Kent (1873-1949). Kent purchased the site in 1938 on the condition that it reopen as a city history museum.

The Atwater Kent Museum, dedicated on April 19, 1941, eventually amassed a collection of over 100,000 items. It was renamed the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent in 2010.

The Power of Objects

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

In its exhibits, the Philadelphia History Museum encouraged visitors to connect with history through artifacts. In a gallery installed after renovations in 2009-12, text reminded visitors that “Objects can make us feel as if we are there. An object's meaning can change over time.”

Philadelphia's Giant Map

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)

Wampum Belt

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

This wampum belt was said to be given to William Penn by the Lenape tribe at the time of the 1682 treaty. The belt, donated in 1857 to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by a great grandson of Penn, is made of white wampum with darker accent beads and depicts two figures holding hands, often interpreted as a sign of friendship and peace. Wampum refers to the shell beads used as currency by Native Americans in the eastern United States. The beads are made of clam and whelk shells and were used as memory aids, often given to commemorate important events such as engagements, marriages, or funerals. Wampum could be fashioned into a belt and used to keep an oral history. The belts were also used as currency and—as seems to be the case here—to mark the creation of treaties.

The wampum belt became part of the collections of the Philadelphia History Museum after the Historical Society transferred its art and artifacts to the museum between 2002 and 2009.


Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

Swedish artist Gustavus Hesselius painted this portrait of Tishcohan, a Lenape chief, around 1735. The painting was among the works of art transferred from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to the Philadelphia History Museum.

Painted Fire Hat

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

With the elegance of a beaver top hat and the patriotic imagery expected of the military, this colorful painted, pressed-felt parade fire hat from the collections of the Philadelphia History Museum features an eagle stretching its wings while standing on a red, white, and blue shield by the ocean. David Bustill Bowser (1820-1900) painted this hat for the United States Fire Company in 1847. (Photograph by Sara Hawken)

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David Paul Brown Presentation Pitcher

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

This silver pitcher was presented at Mother Bethel AME Church to attorney David Paul Brown “by the disfranchised citizens of Philadelphia in testimony for his moral courage and generous disinterest in advocating the rights of the oppressed without regard to complexion or condition.” On several occasions, Brown served as a lawyer on behalf of African Americans who were accused of being fugitives from slavery. Brown's descendants gave the pitcher in 1898 to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which transferred it to the care of the Philadelphia History Museum. (Photograph by Sara Hawken)

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Philly the Dog

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

Although the formal engagement of the United States in World War I was limited, Philly the dog reveals a Philadelphia story of that global conflict. Preserved as a historical artifact at the Philadelphia History Museum, Philly is about sixteen inches tall, and with the mount, she stands at 18.5 inches. The mount reveals that Philly was born in 1917 and died in 1932. The blue blanket that drapes her back states that she was a World War I veteran, a member of the 79th Infantry Regiment. During her fifteen-year lifespan, Philly experienced far more than a typical dog, having gone to war and returned to the Philadelphia area. She traveled to France, witnessed and aided in battle, survived gunshots and chemical warfare, had puppies, and became the official mascot for soldiers from the Philadelphia area. Philly came to the Philadelphia History Museum in 1998 from the 315th Infantry, 79th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. (Photograph by Sara Hawken)

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Atwater Kent Radio

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

With all the necessary components mounted and displayed on a wooden board, this 1923 Atwater Kent breadboard radio appealed to the curious consumer fascinated by new technology. A harbinger of both technological and social advancements, the advent of the radio drastically changed Philadelphians’ means of communication and connection to communities beyond their front stoop. Founded by A. Atwater Kent (1873-1949), the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company operated in Philadelphia from 1902 to 1936. In order to keep up with ever-evolving machinery, Atwater Kent introduced seven different “breadboard” radio models in 1923 alone. This radio, Model 4052, was given to the Atwater Kent Museum as a gift from the Roy Shapiro family in 2014. (Photograph by Sara Hawken)

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Related Reading

Frisch, Michael. “The Presentation of History in Big-City Museums.” In History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, ed. Leon Warren and Roy Rosenzweig. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Griffith, Sally. Serving History in a Changing World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Moses, Nancy. Lost in the Museum: Buried Treasures and the Stories They Tell. Lanham, Md.: Altamira Press, 2007.

Salisbury, Stephan. “History Museum to be Closed to Public.” Philadelphia Inquirer. June 28, 2018.

 Vogel, Morris. Philadelphia: A City for All Centuries. Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum, 1981.

___. Cultural Connections: Museums and Libraries of the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Wolkonowicz, John P. and Donald O. Patterson. A. Atwater Kent: The Man, the Manufacturer, and His Radios. Chandler, AZ: Sonoran Publishing, 2002.

Related Collections

Institutional Archives, Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent (closed to the public beginning June 30, 2018), 15 S. Seventh Street, Philadelphia.

Related Places

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent (closed to the public beginning June 30, 2018), 15 S. Seventh Street, Philadelphia.

African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street, Philadelphia.

Site of Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company, 5000 Wissahickon Avenue, Philadelphia.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Franklin Institute, 222 N. Twentieth Street, Philadelphia.



Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy