Philadelphia History Museum to reopen after three-year closure

Headgear on display includes (from left) an NAACP cap,a painted fireman's parade hat, and a Mike Schmidt batting helmet. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Headgear on display includes (from left) an NAACP cap,a painted fireman's parade hat, and a Mike Schmidt batting helmet. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Posted: September 21, 2012

The 2009 closure was supposed to last only a year or so.

The Philadelphia History Museum, known also as the Atwater Kent, would then emerge from a $6 million building renovation as a dynamic player on the city's cultural landscape.

The closure was painful but essential, officials said. The museum's Greek Revival building, designed by John Haviland, needed more than a face-lift. Climate control was nonexistent. Gallery spaces were dingy and inflexible. Building systems from electric to plumbing were in varying states of decay.

Some of the museum's most precious objects could not be displayed in the building's hostile environment.

Now, after an excruciating three-plus years of darkness brought on by unexpectedly difficult fund-raising, the Philadelphia History Museum is scheduled to reopen Saturday.

"Am I relieved?" asked Charles Croce, the museum's head since the beginning of 2011. "There is relief in finally getting open and being able to show 400 artifacts, a fraction of what we have.

"There is relief at being able to outfit the installation, which cost about $1 million. . . . The design is creative; it shows quality. And we have a contemporary look, even though we're dealing with historic objects.

"But there is a big challenge ahead," he continued, "in getting on the road to financial stability."

The museum will be open and free Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. After that, hours will be Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 to 4:30. Admission will be $10 for adults; $8 for seniors; $6 for students and teenagers 13 to 18; free for children 12 and under.

Once inside the museum at 15 S. Seventh St., visitors will find themselves in light-washed galleries filled with many fragile objects and artworks that have not been on display for a very long time.

Blame the building, at least in part. For instance, in the old Atwater Kent, the great mahogany desk used by George Washington in the 1790s at the President's House a block away was displayed only on President's Day weekend for fear of damage from uncontrolled changes in heat and humidity. Now it will remain on view for much of the coming year.

Overall, there are now seven separate exhibition spaces, a total of about 6,500 square feet, a 30 percent increase. Two rooms off the entrance feature separate, changing exhibitions.

One is devoted to city neighborhoods. The debut show explores the Mural Arts Program's Family Interrupted/Community Connected, a huge four-wall multimedia mural at Dauphin Street and Germantown Avenue.

In the future, other neighborhoods will be highlighted every eight or nine months, and community organizations are invited to submit proposals.

The other front room displays a small collection of artifacts and utilizes video technology to tell the city's 300-year story in whistle-stop fashion.

On the second floor, many of the museum's most important artifacts are currently on view. Here are Washington's desk and pocket watch, Ben Franklin's ale tankard and drinking glass, the fabled wampum belt supposedly given by the Leni-Lenape to William Penn, Mike Schmidt's batting helmet, Joe Frazier's boxing gloves.

But there are also what Croce calls "iconic objects" that reflect ordinary city life.

One poignant display consists of wrenches and a lunch box that belonged to Abe Breitman, a union plumber and son of Russian Jewish immigrants.

In an accompanying text, Len Breitman, the first in the family to earn a doctorate, notes that "my father, Abe, was a big, strong man" who didn't finish high school but "taught me practical problem-solving skills to help me through" Central High School.

At the center of the second floor is a wide-ranging show of oil portraits, photographs, and digital images - faces of the city from Washington, portrayed by Gilbert Stuart, to family snapshots of Willa Talley Moss and her family, African American neighbors and residents in post-World War II Philadelphia.

The display allows the museum to show some extraordinary paintings by the likes of Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, and Thomas Sully.

But it then goes on to show how technology democratizes images and helps people fashion their own identities.

Some of the artworks have rarely, if ever, been seen by the public, most notably a portrait of Harriet Lee Smith, wife of Stephen Smith, the famed black abolitionist. (His portrait, in storage for a decade, can now be seen in the first-floor welcoming gallery.)

The Smiths' images are rare examples of antebellum portraits of free Africans, both attributed to "James Stidun, a noted Negro artist," in a donor's note written in 1931 by Henrietta Clemens Mouserone, Smith's grandniece.

Harriet Smith's portrait suffered a tear at one point but has been repaired and cleaned, and is now on view for the first time in memory.

The portrait exhibition carries right through to the present, with the museum inviting visitors to sit for their own digital portraits. These may then be uploaded for possible inclusion in a rotating set of images on display in the gallery or on the museum's website.

The large exhibition will change about every nine months, Croce said.

The final two rooms focus on the city at work and play. Debuting is an exhibition on Philadelphia's brewing industry and another on the Phillies. Think Jimmy Rollins, think Larry Bowa, think two salvaged seats from the Vet.

Beer and baseball - two things that have a past in Philadelphia, and a future in the refurbished, rechristened Philadelphia History Museum.

Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or, or follow on Twitter @SPSalisbury.

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