Publication Date

March 1, 1993

Perspectives Section


Post Type



State & Local (US)

“Finding Philadelphia’s Past: Vision and Revisions.” Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Permanent exhibition, opened December 1989. 5,000 sq. ft. Gary B. Nash, guest historian; Karen L. Calvert, guest curator; David Cassedy, associate curator; Morris J. Vogel, script consultant; Quenroe Associates, exhibition designers; Henry Nevison, video consultant; Charles Hardy III, audiovisual consultant.

Central to much of the recent attention given to history museums by academic historians is the city museum. It does not diminish regional or rural history museums, or those devoted to a particular historic theme, to appreciate the particular interpretive possibilities of the urban museums that sit squarely in the distressed neighborhoods of the nation’s population centers. Rich in historical objects, images, and documents, they offer a wealth of new perspectives to those historians willing to expand their visual literacy. Quite often these museums are imposing nineteenth-century buildings captured in late twentieth-century downtown, their original historic mission of genteel cultural reinforcement as incongruous as their architecture in a setting of tall glass buildings, shabby stores, and fast food outlets. Still, even the most somnolent of these institutions offers multilayered possibilities for exploring the American past and many, prodded by the scholarly standards of the National Endowment for the Humanities and other funding agencies, have reinterpreted their collections and redesigned their exhibitions to connect their history with the city outside their doors.

Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania exemplify the tension—sometimes creative—between the old city museums and America’s aging cities where, despite private enterprise and public programs, population has steadily moved out of the central city accompanied by rancorous conflict among neighborhoods, self-identified communities, and various levels of government. In sharp relief, Philadelphia has experienced, as Zorba the Greek said, “the whole catastrophe”: urban renewal, black insurgency, white backlash, superhighways, the blighted wastelands of failed projects and programs, gentrification, “messiah mayors,” festival marketplaces, new immigration, and visible homelessness in the two cities of wealth and poverty.1

Outside the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in Philadelphia, history was on the streets last winter when I visited the exhibit. A few blocks away, the food stands at the old railroad station were papered with placards imploring, “Help Save the Reading Terminal Market,” an assortment of craft and food stalls maintained by inherited and acquired ethnicities from Pennsylvania Dutch to Rastafarian. From newspaper boxes, the Metro section of the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “Arts Museum to City: Cut Funds, Will Close.” On a sunny and very cold morning, a few of the nation’s homeless ambled slowly among brisk-paced city workers and a corner delicatessen echoed the multiethnic theme in its advertised takeout specials. A step through the heavy oak doors of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania was a step into a calm, almost serene world where temperature, lighting, and urban conflict existed, but were mediated.

It was not that the HSP’s exhibition of Philadelphia history lacked the hurly-burly of the contested city; rather that the struggle for space and primacy in the city was conducted primarily on the walls. The exhibition begins with an excellent short video which invites visitors to “create their own understanding of the past” and explains that many of the objects represent a form of display that signaled the wealth and high status of their owners and donors. The video monitor projects into a handsome entry room dominated by the oil portraits of founding members who appear bemused by this information and by the advice to the visitor to look for the social meanings of objects and hints of cultural exchange between Native American, African, and European. Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin is used as a fitting cultural navigator to help interpret the varied meanings of objects through his famous spectacles, which appear as a logo to reinforce the exhibition’s title and intent: “Visions and Revisions.”

While there is no catalog, an issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography was dedicated to this exhibition and is an excellent grounding for both the history contained in the exhibition and the history of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Many of the problems encountered by curators and historians in reinterpreting urban history for exhibition are examined here and the issue may be essential reading for those who underestimate the difficulties in transforming good history into good exhibitions.2

The rooms that follow the introductory video divide Philadelphia’s history into periods and events familiar to the general public and illustrate them with objects from the HSP’s collection of over fourteen million items, many of them paper. While the story of William Penn’s treaty with the Indians creates instant recognition for visitors, the text labels that explain the Native American and European encounter and the prominently displayed portraits of the Lenni Lenape chiefs move the story away from celebratory ritual. This is characteristic of the entire exhibition and of the careful work of historian Gary Nash and the HSP curators which, in each room, reminds the viewer that the city’s growth was not organically preordained. The exhibition strives mightily to illustrate the contested nature of Philadelphia’s history in objects chosen for their maximum interpretive possibilities. When such objects were unavailable, label copy carried the story of Philadelphians who left no traces at the HSP and noted these artifactual gaps as, in part, a result of the collecting practices of the founders.

This is particularly evident in the second historic cluster, which presents the golden age of Philadelphia artisans in a bustling commercial seaport before the Revolution. Lest we see nothing but bustle and prosperity, the main label for this section explains that the “underside of commercial development is not well documented in the Historical Society’s early collections because its members at that time were not interested in the lives of the lower classes.” In this label and others, curators repeat the theme of the introductory video, that collections were compiled selectively and subjectively and that the meaning of objects must be often reinterpreted.

This section is successful in implying diversity, striving, and vigorous enterprise with its wide range of crafted products, which include a printing press from Ephrata Cloister, a Mason-Dixon boundary stone, a calico printer, a Windsor chair, and an elegant small walnut and pine spice or valuables chest. Other crafts represented are iron founder, tinplater, miller, blacksmith, shipbuilder, and mariner. The prosperity of the colonial port city, the range of its trade, and its demarcations of wealth and status are represented by local portrait miniatures, English tea sets, China trade items, and the nearby display of high style furnishings. Cultural diffusion and convergence are illustrated in a description of Benjamin Franklin’s “New Invented Philadelphia Fireplace,” which combined two fireplace traditions in an architectural synthesis that was characteristic of the American colonies. Class differences are illustrated by three estate lists compiled for wealthy, middling, and poor Philadelphians.

Further organizational themes, including “Making a Revolution,” “Constructing a Nation,” “The Republic Transformed,” “The Civil War,” and “The Centennial of 1876 in Philadelphia” all repeat the themes of diversity and contested space between races, national groups, conflicting political loyalties, and contested gender roles. Certain objects, such as the draft lottery drum for the Civil War and the lifesize dummy board of a British grenadier, the latter constructed for a lavish Philadelphia party in support of the British Lord Howe, not only draw the eye, but serve as an opening for a discussion of the conflicting loyalties and civil disruption in both the Revolution and the Civil War.

Each historical era portrayed, with its display of familiar icons and long-held objects in a traditional design, still manages admirably to suggest contingent possibilities while intertwining the history of the city with the history of collecting in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In the section, “Making a Revolution,” the main label asks, “`We have it in Our Power to Begin the World Over Again,’ wrote Thomas Paine in 1776 … would Americans create a new society as well?” Near the story of the Constitutional deliberations is Charles Wilson Peale’s attempt to capture the American “national genius” and the sense that “there was something special about America.” As the exhibition describes the early American republic transformed by commerce and industry, it also points to the founding of the HSP, noting that founder “John Fanning Watson and his patrician friends believed that a historical society might also restore the imagined stability of an earlier era.”

Exhibit labels are well placed and readable and they are divided into tiers so that a minimal reading conveys the basic themes while those with more time or interest may learn a great deal more. They describe, albeit silently, a city in as much turmoil as the city outside the doors. On the walls, photographs and printed materials show contending cultures—holiday parades, festivals, folk drama, burlesque, pop music, and dance. Industry is represented by lithographs and engravings of iron works, engine and boiler works, and factories.

The highly successful last section of the exhibition suggests both the possibilities and the dilemmas facing permanent exhibitions of city history. How to maintain high scholarly and design standards for exhibitions with limited space and limited budgets? How to draw visitors for the kind of visual, cerebral, and sometimes tactile learning experience that museums provide when that museum is seen as an elite province in a deteriorating neighborhood? How to make today’s Philadelphians feel themselves to be part of the city’s history and put the museum’s resources to community use? This section presents the visitor with six short videos which include home movies acquired through a public appeal by the HSP. The response surprised and overwhelmed the staff and the enterprise served not only to produce a lively and human picture of early twentieth-century Philadelphia neighborhoods, but invested new segments of the community in the project and in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The very success of the six videos and the story of their acquisition should signal that, although conservation may be costly and acquisitions time-consuming, a campaign for artifacts and oral histories of Philadelphia’s recent past would strengthen the present interpretation and collection and raise local awareness of the Museum and its expanded mission. The exhibition points out the civic function of city museums and reminds us that they were founded to present a form of earnest but self-interested city history in order to achieve a social harmony through hierarchy. Today’s exhibitions stress multiple views and dismiss hierarchy, but the goal is the same: a sufficient amount of jointly held historical understandings to keep the city from flying apart. The scholarly reinterpretation of Philadelphia’s history from William Penn to the Centennial of 1876 asks questions which resonate for Philadelphia’s present dilemmas and it is disappointing not to find these themes carried into the twentieth century, whatever the limitations of the collection. The city museum is a civic player historically and must reinvent that role, not abandon it. The HSP has created an admirable scholarly base and, within the constraints of time, place, and money, needs to bring its considerable powers of interpretation into the challenging present.

With limited space in a handsome old building, with a collection that reflects the nineteenth-century museum founders, and with a location in a neighborhood that makes many suburbanites more nervous than they need be, the HSP has moved to recruit visitors through its education programs and outreach. The Historical Society’s active Education Department has helped to shape perceptions of the exhibition and fill in underrepresented areas by creating lesson plans based on exhibit objects. Workshops for teachers, history summer camp, neighborhood walks or bus tours, and class trips are all structured to extend the possibilities of the exhibition and to encourage students to realize the tentativeness of interpretation.

While the heavy oak doors have creaked open and invited in the public and the staff has imaginatively promoted the exhibition and carried it to schools and public sites wherever possible, the exhibition is one that will best satisfy those willing to stop and read all or most of the label copy, such as readers of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives. A further leap needs to be made to connect this Philadelphia with the Philadelphia of the streets. Efforts at providing audio stations, costumed interpreters, and a temporary gallery with satellite exhibits of twentieth-century neighborhoods demonstrate that, when money is available, the HSP knows what it can do to carry its historically grounded message into the clamorous, contested city.



  1. Jon C. Teaford, The Rough Road to Renaissance: Urban Revitalization in America, 1940–1985 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990): 1–3, 7, 115–116, 179–180, 194–198, 207, 242, 309–313; David Goldfield and Blaine Brownell, Urban America: A History, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990): 412–433. []
  2. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 114/1 (January 1990). []

Marie Tyler-McGraw was staff historian at the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia, for four years and completed a history of the city entitled At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and Its People. She is currently a senior associate of the African-American Communities Project at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, engaged in a study of antebellum colonization and immigration movements.