Publication Date

October 1, 1997

Nearly sixty years ago, when Americans were standing in lines to see Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious historical societies declared a bold new mission.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) acknowledged in 1939 "obligations to the community as a whole as differentiated from its obligations to the world of historical scholarship, [and] … responsibility for disseminating historical information as well as a duty of advancing the frontiers of knowledge." What is more, the society expressed "a deep concern for the life of the people as well as a desire to record the actions of their leaders," It explained that "here in Pennsylvania—from the beginning the most cosmopolitan and democratic of all the States—history concerns itself with the Finns and Swedes, the Dutch and English, the Scots-Irish and Germans, the Negroes and Slavs, without regard to their status, their beliefs, their color, their accent."

In short, on the eve of World War II, the HSP turned itself from a blue-blood, white gentleman's aerie into a society dedicated to "the whole community and not merely a portion of it." Now at the end of the millennium, the HSP has renounced this vision.

The 1939 mission statement has been scrapped-quietly, mistakenly, unnecessarily. The HSP is reinventing itself in its pre-1939 image. It will no longer invite the public to see exhibitions built on its fabulous collections. It will have no exhibitions because it is warehousing (and possibly selling off) its national treasures‚ÄĒeverything from William Penn’s family cradle, to the Lenni Lenape wampum belt presented to Penn as a solemn record at the fabled friendship meeting in 1682; from portraits of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully, to a boundary stone from the Mason-Dixon line; from John Paul Jones’s telescope used on board the Bonhomme Richard during the moonlight battle when he exclaimed, “I have not yet begun to fight,” to George Washington’s desk used in Philadelphia when the city was the nation’s capital.

Over the last five years, HSP's museum curators have been fired because they will have nothing to curate, accession, preserve, and exhibit. The Summer History Camp is history. No more will the HSP bring kids through their doors to see what history is all about and how history unfolded in the city where our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were drafted. The long-term exhibition, Finding Philadelphia's Past, which has thrilled and informed visitors for eight years, has been dismantled and closed. Public programs have been virtually eliminated.

Why is one of the nation's key repositories of our national memory being eviscerated? HSP's director, and a majority of the Board of Councilors, say that money is not available to keep alive the vision of the 1939 Board of Trustees. Seven board members-archivists, historians, art historians, and collectors—have resigned in protest. But their voices have not been heard. HSP is trying to raise $10 million for Robert Venturi to create a grandiose library. This narrow vision of a haven for scholars and genealogists is a failure of creative thinking because it severs the connection between document and artifact and turns the society's face away from its community obligations. The public ends up the major loser while much of what is of enormous value to scholars—and to the public—is being dispersed, sold off, or cold-storaged for future sales.

This retrograde policy is wrong and unnecessary. It is wrong because it falsely cleaves to the outdated notion that historical scholarship is simply the investigation and interpretation of manuscripts and books. Today it is widely recognized that we can never recover the past of the many layers of American society without exploiting a wide range of artifacts that tell secrets that printed materials do not disclose. Paintings, sculptures, pottery, quilts and samplers, household utensils, silver and pewter, dolls, furniture, and artisans' tools are as susceptible to analysis and interpretation as written texts. In fact, they enable historians to reconstruct the lives of the vast majority who left no literary records. The beauty of a historical society collection—indeed, its very reason for being—is that it combines all media. Historians and curators weave together disparate materials and make them work as one. To tear the HSP's museum collections from the manuscript and library collections is a tragedy for scholars and the whole community.

Is this really necessary? Why has the HSP leadership thrown up its hands in the face of fiscal problems when other historical societies provide models for furthering rather than abandoning a commitment to the public and a dedication to today's understanding of the enrichment of history through art and material culture? One looks west to Chicago to see a thriving historical society, much less venerable than the HSP, mounting new exhibitions almost every year—a blockbuster show on everyday life in the American Revolution, a smash hit on Lincoln and the Civil War, a new exhibition on Chicago's black South Side. The Chicago Historical Society is delighted to get Studs Terkel's papers but is equally delighted to exhibit Jacob Lawrence's paintings and acquire precious pieces of the past such as decorated powder horns carved by a Revolutionary soldiers, silver armlets given to seal alliances with Indian allies, and 1790s ceramic pitchers with slogans harking back to the Revolution or commemorating Jefferson's presidential election.

One need not go that far west to see how the HSP could avoid selling off a sizable piece of our national memory and shutting out the public. Just west of Philadelphia, the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS) boasts an ingeniously recycled YMCA building where schoolchildren and adults alike take pleasure in discovering who we are as a people and where their local story fits into the national narrative. Scholars come to see the tax lists, diaries, letters, genealogical material, printed local lore-and fine art and material objects. And the CCHS sponsors programs where teachers connect with professional historians, the public spends weekends, and children catch the excitement of excavating the past. I know this works because I have worked with teachers at the CCHS and addressed its membership at last year's annual meeting. I know it works at thriving historical societies from California to Florida where I have visited, consulted, and learned.

History is hot and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania is going cold. Given the importance of the HSP's collections and its role in defining history, the public dare not let the HSP shut out the larger American story by shutting down and selling off its museum collections while severing its 1939 commitment to the community. All of us will be the poorer for it if we let the HSP retreat into the distant past.

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