History museum begins new era

Visting the museum was a hands-on experience for Liam Cohen, 2, and brother Amit 7, doing a handstand on a giant map of Philadelphia. The boys are from Cherry Hill.
Visting the museum was a hands-on experience for Liam Cohen, 2, and brother Amit 7, doing a handstand on a giant map of Philadelphia. The boys are from Cherry Hill. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

What was the Atwater Kent opened its renovated building for a two-day admission-free celebration.

Posted: September 23, 2012

For 74 years, the museum dedicated to the history of a city known for Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell, and cheesesteaks was named for a radio-manufacturing magnate.

Fred Ottaviano walked by, repeatedly.

"I knew the Atwater Kent was about history, but I had no idea it was Philadelphia history," said Ottaviano, who lives two blocks away. "I never went in."

But on Saturday, Ottaviano and his wife, Pierrette, were among the 767 people who walked into the newly renovated museum to celebrate its grand reopening and new name.

The Atwater Kent Museum, at 15 S. Seventh St., is now the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, a modernized showcase for everything from George Washington's desk to Joe Frazier's boxing gloves.

A two-day celebration marks the museum's return after a $6 million renovation that began in February 2009. The first floor of the museum opened for limited visitation in February, but the entire museum opened to the public for the first time on Saturday. Admission was free Saturday and is also free Sunday.

Extensive renovations spruced up the aging interior of the Greek Revival building, purchased in 1938 by the radio-manufacturing pioneer A. Atwater Kent.

Kent, an inventor who developed a car ignition system and later built a $2 million radio-manufacturing plant on Wissahickon Avenue, agreed to buy the building and donate it to the city for a museum with the condition that it be named after him.

The museum's new title isn't a "change," said Charles Croce, the museum's executive director and CEO. "It's a clarification."

"We wanted to make sure people understood the purpose of the museum, i.e., Philadelphia history," Croce said Saturday between greeting museum visitors. "The old name didn't convey that."

Croce said he had explained the change to the family, including Kent's grandson, museum board member A. Atwater Kent III.

High school history teacher Matthew Witek walked the galleries Saturday, four years after he first visited the then-Atwater Kent.

Back then, he turned to Google to find the museum dedicated to Philadelphia's past.

"It's important for me to see how Philadelphia history is presented," said Witek, who teaches at Olney High School. "The big challenge in teaching history is making it interesting and relevant to everyone."

Witek, 30, said he "loved" the way the curators have presented the city's history as a series of stories.

One gallery, "City Stories: An Introduction to Philadelphia," tells the city's history through the eyes of its residents. The museum's "Face to Facebook" exhibit includes a series of historical portraits displayed only a few feet from a huge picture frame that invites visitors to stand within it and consider their own portrait and legacy.

Gregg Williams, 56, of Paso Robles, Calif., stood inside the frame as his son Nathan, 33, took his dad's picture.

The father and son were visiting the museum as part of a bucket-list adventure. Gregg Williams was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago. He and his son are taking trips that combine history and sports.

"This museum is fresh and interesting with unique items," Gregg Williams said, "and they allow us to interact with those items."

Later Saturday, the duo were headed to the Phillies' game with the Atlanta Braves.

Mary Ann and Jerry Gaffney drove from their home in Cape May to visit the museum and take in the Winslow Homer exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Jerry Gaffney, 79, a retired insurance underwriter, worked near the Philadelphia History Museum for 19 years. He never went in, either.

"I walked by hundreds of times, but I was always too busy rushing somewhere," Gaffney said.

Mary Ann Gaffney, 78, jokingly said she has to "drag" her husband to "these historical places." The couple called the museum "great" and took as much pleasure in the old as in the new. They marveled at the museum's trademark map of the city painted into the floor of a first-floor gallery. They found Mary Ann Gaffney's Northeast Philadelphia birthplace.

Upstairs, Tom Wolf, a businessman from York, walked through the portrait gallery wearing a Phillies cap.

Wolf, who is so enamored of Philadelphia that he and his wife now have an apartment in Washington Square, says he thinks the new name will make the museum more accessible for some.

"I think they will find the name helpful," said Wolf, 63.

"I think some people will use the names interchangeably," and for others, he said, the museum "will always be the Atwater Kent."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes

at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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