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Expanding Access to a History Museum’s Treasures

Exterior of the Philadelphia History Museum

Written by Drexel University President John Fry and published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, this piece focuses on how taking charge of the Philadelphia History Museum’s collections stays true to Drexel’s mission. 

When the Philadelphia History Museum announced that the doors to the museum (formerly the Atwater Kent Museum) were closing, my colleagues at Drexel University and I asked how we could help. We knew we didn’t want to operate a full-scale history museum, or to “bail out” the city-funded entity, but we realized if Philadelphia were to lose a precious resource like its own rich history embodied in a unique and extraordinary collection of artifacts and art, it would be a terrible blow.

The museum and city leaders had attempted in recent years to find a suitable partner to help the museum become more sustainable. But after those efforts failed and the decision to close was made, they were open to discussing some novel ways to engage the public and draw on Drexel’s considerable expertise and history as a collecting institution.

We proposed developing a robust lending program that would allow organizations across the city to display artifacts and art from the collections, as well as a digital portal that would allow access from anywhere. This new “distributed” model would, in effect, be a democratized museum without walls.

At a time when small, historical organizations nationally are struggling, we felt that this democratic, distributed model for displaying pieces of our heritage and broadening access could be a model for other collaborations across the country.

We envisioned a plan where libraries, historic sites, community centers, schools, and museums, as well as exhibition spaces in public places like Philadelphia International Airport, could request materials to display. The plan would enable more objects than ever before to be seen and appreciated by the public.

Drexel, too, will be a proud exhibitor of materials from the collection in any of our main gallery spaces, all of which are open to the public, taking their place among the dozen or so gallery exhibitions we curate every year. Our curatorial and collections staff could offer technical exhibition assistance to those organizations that needed it.

The long-term stewardship of the collections means the city will petition Orphans’ Court to transfer their ownership to Drexel, so that we can do the work described above, along with a 2- to 3-year collection evaluation process. In consideration of Drexel’s willingness to steward and manage the collection so that it can stay in Philadelphia and enjoy ever greater access, the city has appropriated funds to Drexel that will fully fund the work for the next five years. So, while the city no longer will own the collections, city leaders have seen the importance of ensuring their future.

I have been asked how this arrangement will benefit Drexel. First, our strategic plan envisions a comprehensive university with an increased presence in the humanities and social sciences. We have made great strides in this direction, particularly for a university best known for its STEM disciplines.

One acknowledgment that we are succeeding in our efforts to broaden the research mandate across disciplines is the recent designation of Drexel as an R1 Research University, a designation shared by only 131 universities in the nation. Another sign that this strategic direction will benefit the university is in the extraordinary encouragement from friends and donors, who feel that Drexel’s strengthened humanities and social sciences is worthy of their support. We have heard from many across Philadelphia who are anxious to ensure that our effort to save Philadelphia’s historical treasures succeed.

Back in 1891, when Anthony J. Drexel founded the Drexel Institute, one of his first acts was to buy historical artifacts, fine and decorative arts as a way to showcase history, design, and craftsmanship to students and to the public. Today we view these collections, as well as the incredible collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, and the stunning archives of the former Women’s Medical College, as our crown jewels.

Bringing the Atwater Kent collections to Drexel is consistent with our past, as well as with our future, and we will be honored to share them widely with Philadelphians and visitors, alike.

View the opinion piece on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s website at this link.

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