Publication Date

September 1, 1997

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is receiving sharp criticism from the history community for its decision to "deaccession" a number of historical artifacts in its collections.

According to Susan Stitt, the society's president, the decision to sell or contribute some or all of the pieces in its collection was made as part of a strategic plan, approved in 1994, to concentrate the society's resources on its manuscript and library collections. Stitt said it was a "decision based on our resources—what we have is spread too thin." The society is currently one of the nation's largest nongovernmental repositories of documentary materials.

It has not been decided how these materials will be dispersed, but the strategic decision has produced an angry response from many who have worked with the sg in the past. At least three members of the society's Board of Councilors resigned to protest the decision. Carol Baldridge, an archivist who resigned from the society's board in April, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I don’t separate in my mind the artifacts from the manuscripts … One of the great things about a historical society is that all of the media can converge.” Gary Nash (UCLA), who served as guest historian on one of the Society’s recent exhibits, called the move a “debacle.”

Stitt said that the strategic plan evolved over several discussions. She pointed out that while it is true that three members of the society's board dissented and resigned, a very large majority had agreed that the society should indeed concentrate on developing its manuscript and book collections. However, Nash, who served on a focus group that was consulted about the new strategic plan, insisted that this move was contrary to their recommendations.

Stitt insisted that the society intends to ensure that all the divested objects continue to remain accessible to the public. The society's hope is that, wherever possible, the divested objects go to appropriate locations. "We are proud that they are going home," she said, especially of the three objects originally belonging to Thomas Jefferson—a clock, a thermometer, and a portrait of botanist Abbe Corea da Serra Jose Francisco—which have been on long-term loan to Monticello. Precluded as a nonprofit organization from giving away the various objects, the society has to negotiate a fair price for the objects, which will now be permanently transferred to Monticello. Similarly, a unique and valuable John Singleton Copley portrait of Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Mifflin and his wife will be going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while a larger than life statue of Edwin Forrest will be going to the New Freedom Theater, which is renovating Forrest's house in Philadelphia and may place the statue there.

The society is hoping that the rest of the 10,000 item collection—which will be placed immediately in storage as the society undertakes renovation work on its building—can be moved to a new museum in Philadelphia by 2001. If this idea, already discussed and mooted by an independent committee cannot be realized, the society will encourage proposals from various museums for acquiring the objects in fair exchange for manuscripts and books; or failing that, a mutually agreed upon price. The collection of objects was, in any case, "too small to sustain proper museum style exhibitions," said Ms. Stitt. The society will continue to retain and display, however, all objects that directly bear on the society's history, providing the historical context for researchers consulting the rich manuscript and book collections of the society.

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