Community groups figure in renovated Philadelphia History Museum

The renovated city history museum in Philadelphia’s Center City is reopening … one room at a time.

After three years of being closed — to reassess its mission and undergo a major physical upgrade — the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent, on Seventh Street, is slated to fully reopen in September. Early birds have been getting tease of what is to come.

The first ground-floor room opened last February, featuring a sample objects and exhibits of what is to come upstairs. Last week, a second ground-floor room opened, with a sample of a modern museum curatorial trend.

The Community History Gallery invites neighborhood groups and local history societies to use the space to present themselves.

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“We will offer this gallery every four months or so to another group who played a role in the city’s history,” said executive director Charles Croce. “It’s kind of self-curated. They will work with our staff, but the idea is for that group to tell its story in this gallery space for several months.”

The first collaborator is the Mural Arts Project, which has re-created an outdoor mural in North Philadelphia, at Dauphin Street and Germantown Avenue, as a panoramic photograph inside the gallery. Called “Family Interrupted,” the mural’s design is embedded with QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone, which bring users to online mp3s of testimonies from inmates.

Those QR codes can also be scanned off the wall-sized photograph of the mural in the city history museum.

“I talk to my mother for the first time in 17 years when I was in Trenton State Prison, and two weeks later she was murdered,” said one anonymous prisoner in a recording put together for the multimedia mural.

Prisoners at Graterford maximum-security prison, kids in juvenile detention, and community members with family behind bars helped design and execute the multimedia mural, completed in May 2012.

The Mural Arts Project does many things, including economic revitalization projects and vocational training. The focus is on prisoners at the city museum because restorative justice is the program’s oldest and most developed program.

“It’s a program that has become very comprehensive and very complex, working with lifers at Graterford, women’s prisons and juvenile justice,” said special projects manager Thora Jacobson. “It seemed like an opportunity to use one project to talk about a very rich part of Mural Arts’ history.”

The wall image of the mural, along with pieces of the mural, will be on display at the Atwater Kent for at least four months, until another community group is ready to replace it. Croce says 25 possible groups are being vetted for the next guest spot.

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