Philadelphia History Museum reopens with up-to-date facility, clearer mission

In 2009, it was supposed to be closed one year, for a $1.5 million renovation. Three years and $5.7 million later, the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent will reopen to the public this weekend.

“Anyone who’s ever done any home renovation would agree that the price you get at the beginning, the estimate, is not what it costs,” said CEO Charles Croce, who came on board midway through the renovation process, citing structural surprises and an expanding renovation plan for the unexpected delays and costs.

For years, the so-called Atwater Kent Museum had acted as the city’s attic. Historic and not-so-historic flotsam would find its way into the collection. With more than 100,000 items, it didn’t seem to know what to do with it all.

The museum needed a change, both physically and institutionally. Security and climate-control inside the 1826 building had never been up to museum standards. Other institutions refused to loan objects to the Atwater Kent for fear of humidity and temperature damage.

The museum deaccessioned some objects in its own collection deemed unaligned with its mission of representing the history of Philadelphia. Some of the money was used to pay for an HVAC system.

The revised mission of the museum is reflected in its new name. The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent will strive to make itself known to the public as the confusing “Atwater Kent Museum” could not. (Philanthropist Atwater Kent donated the building to the city on the condition his name always be associated with it.)

An interactive emphasis

The exhibitions are designed to be strongly interactive, to pull visitors by the hand through Philadelphia history.

In the large second-floor portrait gallery, wall texts direct your gaze, prod you with questions, and encourage you to get personal with paintings of subjects such as President George Washington, a young William Penn, Charles Willson Peale and Lenape tribal chiefs.

“We’re moving away from that book-on-the-wall, and we’re engaging audiences by asking them questions and giving them an opportunity to interact with us,” said the director of collections, Kristen Froehlich. The galleries are mounted with iPads, giving visitors a chance to seek our more information about any object on display.

The portrait gallery also features an empty frame, in which visitors can take their own portrait and send it to a Facebook page, which is then added to a revolving digital display on the wall. There is a small exhibition of Philadelphia beer brewing history, and another about the Phillies.

Alongside important historic artifacts — such as George Washington’s presidential desk, the Lenape wampum belt presented to William Penn, and iron slave shackles — are objects that speak less to the sweep of history and more to the weave of everyday life: an iron for making pizzelle cookies, a silver menorah, a pair of old New Balance running shoes spray-painted gold for a Mummers parade, circa 2005.

“The collection is not so strong in late 20th century and early 21st century, and we’re recognizing that,” said Froehlich. “One of our missions has always been to tell the stories of daily urban life. It’s so wonderful to reach out to someone and they say, like with the menorah, ‘You want that, for the museum?’ ‘Yes! We want that, for the museum!'”

Complementary history

Some of the material on display at the History Museum overlaps with subjects found in other museums ringing Independence Mall, such as the nearby National Museum of American Jewish History, and the African-American Museum in Philadelphia.

“We don’t focus on one period of history. We give the entire overview,” said Croce. “If you discover you are interested in the American Revolution, we have some things, and we would then send you to the Revolution Center when it’s built.

“The idea is you get an overview here, and then we try to send you out to other places in Philadelphia that can expand that interest you have.”

The Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent offers free admission this weekend. Its normal Tuesday through Saturday hours and $10 admission begin next week.

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