The news that Philadelphia’s museum dedicated to its history as a city is shuttered is devastating and tragic. For a city that so embraces its past as packaged for tourists and outsiders, the idea that we can allow our own city history to be, well—history—is a failure of civic leadership that is a crime against our posterity. If the mayor and top civic leaders cannot find the resources and management to save and revitalize this museum then they should be history!
The Philadelphia History Museum, formerly known as the Atwater Kent Museum, is mandated by Philadelphia’s city charter to serve as a steward for our collective memory. While the actual museum has been a sleepy institution in recent years, its resources and collection are incredibly impressive. A revitalized Philadelphia History Museum has the ability to tell the story of our city and to inform every discussion about its future. But, if a central repository of city history is to disappear, and if the collection is scattered to the wind, our city will be much the worse for the loss.
The collective civic inability to support the city’s history museum is not a story about a lack of money. Clearly, the resources exist in Philadelphia to support so many worthy—and even many questionable—organizations. In recent years, the civic community has supported the creation and renovation of an impressive array of new and refreshed institutions. No, this is a story of a failure of imagination and a dereliction of municipal stewardship.
The city accepted responsibility for the museum more than 80 years ago and that responsibility is memorialized in the city charter that is Philadelphia’s central governing record. Our elected leaders have an obligation to sustain this institution and Philadelphia as a whole has a responsibility to safeguard its past and its history museum. Its closure is a dereliction of this responsibility.
We should not stand for such a civic loss and the failure of our city leadership on this matter has been disappointing. Any Mayor or civic leader who will not stand up to preserve our city’s history, should, themselves be history.
The Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia History Museum have invited the public to participate in a discussion about the future of the museum and its historic collection beginning at 6 pm tonight, February 27th, at the National Constitution Center. Everyone with a comment or a question or an idea should plan to attend.
Here’s my thought. Those behind the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame have long sought to construct a home for their collections and a shrine to their inductees. Their dreams could help infuse some energy into the discussion about the future of the Philadelphia History Museum. Properly capitalized—perhaps with an initial contribution from the city’s deep-pocketed Rebuild initiative—the history of the city, its sports and its music could be told in a way that can preserve the Philadelphia story for future generations.
More than three centuries of artifacts and stories and information capital have been collected and curated to form our city’s history museum. If that museum is disassembled, it will never exist again no matter how elements of it are preserved. We should not stand for such a civic loss and the failure of our city leadership on this matter has been disappointing. Any Mayor or civic leader who will not stand up to preserve our city’s history, should, themselves be history.
Brett Mandel is former executive director of Philadelphia Forward, a nonprofit that encourages civic engagement and advocates for smarter uses of public money. He ran for City Controller in 2013.