The city-owned museum is located in the same building as its predecessor, which was built in 1826 as the original home of the Franklin Institute (it was designed by John Haviland, who was also responsible for the groundbreaking Eastern State Penitentiary). It staged a grand opening over the weekend to celebrate the three-year, $5.8 million modernizing makeover.
"This is for the hometown. This is for Philadelphia," crowed Charles Croce, the museum's executive director and CEO, as he conducted a recent tour of the facility. Most importantly, said Croce - who, curiously, is a native New Yorker - the museum isn't just a spruced-up version of the Atwater Kent. Instead, he offered, "I think it's a rebirth. It's almost like a startup."
For folks used to sprawling complexes, the Philadelphia History Museum might seem downright cramped: Its public spaces total a mere 6,500 square feet spread over two floors. But there is plenty to see, even though, according to Croce, only 400 of an estimated 100,000 objects are on display. And, he noted, of those 400, only about 40 have previously been on public display.
Philly's own 330-year story (as opposed to its crucial roles in America's) has been complex, diverse and populated by an army of American icons, from the Founding Fathers to boxer Joe Frazier. Rather than try to tell a comprehensive tale, the museum's exhibits (which should all be different by early next year) offer seemingly disparate, unrelated artifacts and displays that, in their totality, provide an often-fascinating portrayal of this singular corner of the universe.
For instance, one exhibit, "The Ordinary, The Extraordinary and The Unknown: The Power of Objects," includes, among other totems, the wampum belt presented to Philly founder William Penn by the Lenni-Lenape Indians in 1682, the desk used by George Washington when he lived in Philadelphia as our first president (one of several Washington-owned items on view), and a pair of boxing gloves worn by Frazier during a 1970 prizefight.
Another display, designed to give an overview of the fabric of Philly life, offers both the brass compass used by 17th-century surveyor John Ladd to create the street grid that defines the original city, and a couple of pages from Northeast High School's Class of 1960 yearbook.
The museum boasts a number of original oil paintings as well. Among them is one of the iconic Gilbert Stuart portraits of Washington.
On the upper floor are two rooms, dubbed "Made in Philadelphia" and "Played in Philadelphia." The former's current exhibit is a look at the city's long involvement in the brewing business, from the nation's first brewmaster (old Penn himself) to the plethora of microbreweries that today have made Philly a mecca for beer aficionados.
The latter is a perfect example of the museum's surprising way of presenting the past.
The first subject of "Played in Philadelphia" is the city's 129-year-old National League baseball franchise. But rather than being another retelling of the team's chronological history (a topic well-covered by the display in Ashburn Alley at Citizens Bank Park), this presentation, which includes souvenirs collected by the public, looks at the phenomenon of Phillies fandom.
And despite its current offerings, "Played in Philadelphia" won't be exclusively devoted to sports. The city's illustrious and important contributions to show business and broadcasting will be featured in future programs.
To tell the city's story, the museum has embraced technology. Tablets allow visitors to get info about specific items on video screens, with easy-to-understand narratives that validate Croce's opinion that the museum is "not didactic, not academic."
Although it will take decades to display all 100,000 items owned by the museum, Croce made it clear that he and his staff are always on the lookout for more.
"If someone comes in and says, 'I have something that's Philadelphia-related,' " he said, "we're into looking at it."
Philadelphia History Museum, 15 S. 7th St., 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, $10, $8 (seniors), $6 (students 13-18), free (kids 12 and under), 215-685-4830, www.philadelphiahistory.org.
Contact Chuck Darrow at 215-313-3134 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chuckdarrow and read his blog philly.com/casinotes.