New curator wants to ‘build a meaningful center of historical focus for Germantown’

Did you know that the stretch of Germantown Avenue from Windrim Avenue to beyond Upsal Street is America’s longest National Colonial Historic District?

Laura Keim does.

The new Historic Germantown curator said this week that she wants the community to embrace the National Historic District, for which the partnership has been trying new ways to “offer meaningful connections to history for everyone.”

“What we have seen in Germantown over time is that the making and collecting of history has neglected whole segments of our community,” said Keim. “My job is to do my part in making Historic Germantown an agent of meaningful connection to history and a center of community vitality.”

Solomon retires

Keim assumed the position of part-time curator for Historic Germantown this summer following the retirement of Betsy Solomon, who worked as a volunteer curator.

Keim has also served as curator for Stenton House since 1999 and Wyck since 2007.

“Having worked in Historic Germantown for over a decade at multiple sites,” she said, “I am excited to increase my work with the consortium.”

She said she was first introduced to Germantown as an intern at Cliveden while in graduate school in the mid-1990s.

Unique challenges

Her work at Stenton and Wyck includes care, research and interpretation of the collections at each, though she explained they are quite different historic structures.

“Stenton is a nearly unaltered, early 18th century house with many family collections and an amazing archeological collection,” said Keim. “Wyck was built in stages over the course of the 18th century and renovated in the Classical style by the architect William Strickland in 1824, having changed very little since that time.”

Her new position will include working with the Germantown Historical Society’s collection.

“The Germantown Historical Society’s collection is not associated with one place or family, but with the community as a whole, which makes working with the artifacts and conceptualizing how to generate meaning from them a new challenge for me,” explained Keim.

As an undergraduate, Keim studied art history at Smith College where she took a year-long American Art course.

“[It] opened my eyes to the idea that Philadelphia, in particular, was a far richer historical cultural center than I realized growing up here,” said Keim. “My interest in history stems from a deep-seated curiosity about the physical world around us and how it came to be the way it is.”

Her résumé

Keim received master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (where she studied historic preservation) and the University of Delaware’s Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

She has taught museum studies at La Salle University and and is currently leading a historic-interiors course at Philadelphia University’s School of Architecture and Design. At Penn, she teaches a similar course and works with the Historic Preservation Department in the Graduate School of Fine Arts.

She has also published an article about Germantown resident and antiquarian John Fanning Watson and his collections of historical relics from the founding era.

“He collected pieces of ‘Treaty Tree Elm’ and other relic woods fashioned into boxes, frames and chairs as well as furnishings owned by William Penn,” said Keim.

She said the article drew together artifacts from Stenton, Wyck, Winterthur, Independence Park and the Library Company of Philadelphia to discuss an early national culture of collecting which was centered in Germantown.

“I fundamentally see my work as being about making connections, between the past and present, between objects and ideas,” she said.

Her historical highlight?

Keim’s favorite event in the area is the Battle of Germantown.

“I enjoy the theater and pageantry of the re-enactment,” said Keim, “although putting soldiers with gunpowder into an historic house is an absolute curator’s nightmare!”

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