Historical Society pushes back on plan to transfer Philly History Museum to Drexel University

A taxidermied dog

A taxidermied dog named Philly, who served in Philadelphia's 315th Infantry during World War I, is among the items in the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A plan to transfer the inventory of the now-defunct Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent — about 130,000 items dating back more than 300 years — to Drexel University is working its way through the courts.

The move is getting resistance from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The plan would transfer the collection to Drexel, which would not reopen the museum, but rather maintain the collection in its entirety and make its pieces available as temporary loans. The agreement says Drexel will create a financial endowment of undetermined amount to maintain the collection, and create an oversight committee to determine if and how objects should be deaccessioned, or sold off.

HSP is opposing that proposed plan because it lacks key details about care and maintenance for the historical inventory, including finances and public oversight. Director David Brigham said the proposal as it now reads would allow the city and Drexel to work out the details after a judge approves the agreement.

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“We still don’t have answers to some pretty big questions,” he said. “How will Drexel staff if the transfer is made? Are we talking about two people or 12 people? That’s a very different kind of operation.”

“The 1938 charter for the Atwater Kent Museum says that it will be a public museum. The plan is not for a public museum. It’s for a lending library. So what does that mean?” he continued. “Who’s eligible to borrow from it? Is it only museums and libraries? If it’s a broad definition of a potential borrower, how will Drexel go about stewarding the collection?”

HSP has petitioned Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper to grant it standing to intervene in the agreement between the city and Drexel, on the grounds that HSP had donated about 10,000 objects – including the wampum belt given to William Penn by the Lenni Lenape people, and George Washington’s presidential desk — to the collection and still maintains an influence over their fate.

Brigham said that HSP had initially been involved in the transfer discussion, but “at some point the curtain went down and they stopped talking to us.”

Attorneys for the city filed a response opposing HSP’s request for intervention, saying HSP has no valid legal basis to participate.

“Having transferred its historical artifacts to the Atwater Kent Museum outright over a decade ago, HSP has no special interest or rights that would be impacted by the transfer of the Atwater Kent Museum Collection to Drexel University,” read the city’s memo. “This means that HSP’s status with respect to the Collection Trust is the same as any other member of the public.”

“HSP’s real motivation is not to ensure that any interests it claims to have will be protected, but rather to usurp the rightful role of the Attorney General,” the memo continued.

That petition to intervene will be considered at an Orphan’s Court hearing on Monday morning.

HSP is not alone in its concern over the plan for Philadelphia’s historic material record. A group of historians and cultural stewards are backing HSP up, including a senior curator at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kathleen Foster; Temple University professor Ken Finkel; University of Pennsylvania associate professor Aaron Wunsch; historian Frank Hoeber, and Thaddeus Squire of Social Impact Commons, a fiscal sponsorship non-profit.

In a written statement to Orphan’s Court judge, the group wrote the agreement creates a “black box,” wherein the city and Drexel can determine the details of the agreement without informing the public or requiring its input.

In a letter to Judge Woods-Skipper requesting permission to speak at the hearing, the group wrote that the proposal “provides insufficient detail to ensure adequate funding for the care for the collection, to understand how the collection will be made accessible to the public, and to provide clear case management direction, particularly as it relates to planned deaccessioning.”

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For years the city has been trying to form a partnership with an outside party to take over the history museum at Atwater Kent and maintain the collection. The city had reduced its support of the museum from covering most of its budget — 83% according to court documents — to less than half. In 1992 the museum had to seek 60% of its budget from outside sources.

Citing inadequate funding, the museum closed permanently in 2018. The next year a possible partner emerged in Drexel University.

If the agreement is approved, the Atwater Kent building at 7th Street would revert back to its original owner, the Atwater Kent Foundation. The foundation gifted the building to the city in 1938 on the condition that it be used as a museum.

“The plan the Trustees and city are proposing would keep the remarkable Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent collection together, in Philadelphia, under a single trusteeship for the benefit of Philadelphia’s citizens,” said city spokesperson Irene Contreras Reyes. “It will make the collection more accessible to Philadelphians than it has ever been before, and it will place the collection under the care of Drexel University’s highly-trained museum professionals.”

Brigham says there is not enough detail in the plan for the court to permit it.

“The petition by the city talks about a transfer agreement, and a transfer plan. The transfer agreement is what they’re asking to have approved. The transfer plan will follow later,” Brigham said. “Without the transfer plan, I don’t know how one could decide that the transfer agreement is appropriate and serves the best interests of the collection and the citizens of Philadelphia.”

The Orphans’ Court hearing in City Hall on Monday morning will be open to the public, but there will not be an opportunity for members of the public to speak.

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