Judge signals approval of plan to transfer Philly history museum to Drexel

A judge has signaled her pending approval of a plan to transfer 130,000 historic objects from Philly’s history museum to the private university.

File photo of Commemorative memorabilia from the 1980 Phillies World Series championship on display at the Philadelphia History Museum. (WHYY, file)

File photo of Commemorative memorabilia from the 1980 Phillies World Series championship on display at the Philadelphia History Museum. (WHYY, file)

Update: On May 4, Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper filed her final approval of the plan to allow the transfer of the objects held by the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent to Drexel University, making Drexel the trustee of the collection.

The city of Philadelphia and Drexel University returned to Orphan’s Court on Wednesday to explain an agreement that would transfer the archive of the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent to the private university.

Previously, the two parties had been asked by Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper to include more details about the financing, staffing, and security Drexel will invest in its stewardship of the public collection of about 130,000 historical artifacts.

Although no decision was made on Wednesday, Woods-Skipper signaled she would swiftly approve the plan once language discussed during the hearing was added to the agreement. There are no more hearings planned.

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The city’s Chief Cultural Officer Kelly Lee explained the collection under Drexel’s stewardship would be overseen by an oversight committee and a collection evaluation committee. The city of Philadelphia would have seats on those committees, but Drexel would retain a majority, ensuring it ultimately would have the final decision.

However, the city would have the legal power to hold Drexel to its fiduciary responsibility, meaning its decisions must be for the benefit of the collection and the public.

Drexel President John Fry said he takes that responsibility seriously and will establish a permanent endowment to pay for its upkeep as well as three full-time staff with five full-time assistants. The size of the endowment is pending a feasibility study.

Fry said the transfer agreement does not include specific dollar amounts because the agreement is designed in perpetuity. “It’s impossible to anticipate funding needs in the far future,” he told the judge.

Drexel will not operate a history museum, rather the collection will be available to peruse and study online, and objects can be loaned out on request.

Drexel University’s Derek Gillman, who previously ran the Barnes Foundation and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), said a letter of intention has been hammered out with PAFA to store the collection in the academy’s Hamilton building on North Broad Street.

Not only will the collection be located inside city limits, but PAFA promises a secure, climate-controlled space.

“Security is what keeps us up at night,” Gillman told the judge. “And funding.”

“Sounds like you don’t sleep much,” said Woods-Skipper.

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“I sleep at night,” he said confidently.

A representative of the state attorney general’s office did not have objections to the agreement.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania petitioned to intervene for a second time, appealing a previous denial. It was denied again.

HSP president David Brigham had sent a letter to the judge with concerns about the objects being loaned out to institutions – like schools or libraries – that are not equipped to securely handle delicate historical artifacts.

In response on the stand, Gillman said Drexel will work with the loaning party to make accommodations that will comply with the standards of the American Association of Museums, even – if it comes to it – displaying objects in their own customized cases for security and climate control.

The vice president of the Atwater Kent board, Jeffry Benoliel, told the court he is satisfied with the transfer agreement because it gives the collection more resources than it had at Atwater Kent, including digitizing, a loan plan, and a dedicated endowment.

“It places obligations on Drexel that we never had,” he said.

A letter to the court by a group of concerned citizens – Ken Finkel, Francis Hoeber, and Thaddeus Squire – objected to the transfer of the entire collection to one trustee, suggesting it would be better to split it up into several places.

They describe the collection as a hodge-podge of objects with little curatorial coherence.

“The collection is hardly a carefully curated, planned body of artifacts that tell a seamless story of Philadelphia from its beginnings to the present,” read the letter. “The collection could reasonably be divided up, if doing so would result in better care and greater accessibility for the artifacts and the ideas they represent.”

On the stand, Gillman said that the hodge-podge of conflicting perspectives is exactly what makes the collection one of the country’s most compelling collections of Americana, and why it needs to be kept intact.

“The Atwater Kent is a collection of interlocking histories,” said Gillman. “Philadelphia has many histories.”

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