A couple weeks ago, a new museum opened on Boston Street in the East Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. This weekend, the same museum will open on the 1800-block of East Huntingdon Avenue.
The nomadic institution is the Philadelphia Public History Truck,a hyper-local museum operating out of the back of an old ice cream truck.
“Museums are slightly inaccessible in Philadelphia,” Founder Erin Bernard said. “They are wonderful. There are some great institutions in Philadelphia. But if you live in Kensington, or Port Richmond, or West Philly, it’s not just down the street. And it might be too much money to get in. The truck is trying to problematize that and be accessible.”
Bernard, a graduate student of history at Temple Univesrsity; and her collaborator Jordan Klein, are using the truck to gather stories and objects from neighborhood residents. On a vacant lot on Boston Street, surrounded by hulking brick buildings that used to be textile mills, she asked curious and not-so-curious passersby to write on swatches of cloth questions about the history of the neighborhood. In accordance with the theme of hosiery manufactuing, the questions were stuffed into socks. Later, Bernard will do the research to answer them.
The collected stories and personal artifacts will result in an exhibition, expected next spring, which will fit into the back of the truck.
“It lends itself well to the fact that we’re trying to do neighborhood history,” Bernard said. “In the end, we want to be traveling around the city and showing up on random blocks. We’re here in East Kensington, but I have every intention of the East Kensington exhibit being in the truck and traveling to 52nd and Walnut, or 20th and Federal, or Fourth and Fitzwater. It’s a nice parking size.”
In its 25-year life, the truck has delivered mail, drum kits to rock gigs, and protest material to street demonstrations. The hood still retains the ghost of its former life as a water ice truck: “A Touch of Philly.”
About five years ago, Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, responded to a Craigslist ad and found the truck buried in weeds in South Jersey. After a little elbow grease, he says people are instinctively attracted to it.
“It’s like, fire trucks and ice cream and pizza — certain things touch the hearts of young and old,” said Carpineta. “People always flock to it. It gives people a good feeling. It’s like a magnet.”
It didn’t hurt that Carpineta and Bernard were serving slices of pie out of the truck.
This weekend, the history truck will park at a block party in East Kensington, where Bernard will record oral histories of residents with microphones set up in the back.