Monday, December 20, 2010

Civil War and Bank Failure

I've written two recent blog posts on Fondly, Pennsylvania, the archives and conservation blog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, about collapses that happen to have anniversaries this week.

As you may know, today is the 150th anniversary of South Carolina's secession from the United States. You can read about this and other events leading up to the Civil War in my post about the papers of President James Buchanan.

This week is also the 80th anniversary of the failure of Bankers Trust Company, which on December 22, 1930 became the first large Philadelphia bank to fail during the Great Depression. I am researching the Bankers Trust story as part of my work with the Greenfield digital history project.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Staying Power of Signs

Now that the exhibit has opened, I have a bit more time to think about other topics. Lucky you!

A couple weeks ago, I noticed an article in the Metro newspaper about the city's renaming of a block of Broad Street as "Gamble and Huff Walk." One observer said, "I’m sure 50 years from now . . . people will say 'Why is that name there?' And what will happen is people will go and read about the music of [sic] and the legacy."

That got me thinking. Is that really what we can expect from honorary street names?

Do these signs ensure a long-lasting public history legacy?

Keep in mind, these streets are not officially renamed, at least according to the U.S. Post Office. The block now marked as Gamble and Huff Walk, for example, is still just Broad Street.

So I took a (very brief) walking tour of the city to see what we're commemorating.

Do neighbors of McCollough's Way know to whom that refers? I don't, and couldn't figure it out by Google-ing or doing a quick search of digitized Philadelphia Inquirer articles.



Stokowski Place is a bit easier to decode, for those who care to try. That block is named in honor of Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), renowned conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra who had a studio there.



But who stops to notice the Broad Street block named in honor of Rev. Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933), a key figure in African American gospel music? (You can read more about him and his church, located on that block, here and here.)



Dozens of other signs throughout the city honor various other notable personalities. Maybe with all my new free-time (ha!) I'll start a new digital project to record where these markers exist.

Because that's one problem with honorary street signs: they don't help you find the actual street.

I originally planned to include a photo of Marian Anderson Way, but while walking through the neighborhood, I couldn't remember where it was. (It's the 700 block of S. Martin Street.) Thankfully, Anderson is commemorated on more than one block, thanks to the Marian Anderson Historical Society.



Another problem with considering honorary street names to be public history tools is that some tacked-on signs have more to do with marketing or neighborhood identity than with history. How are viewers to know which signs are historical?





The city renamed Broad Street just south of City Hall "The Road to Beijing(TM)" in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. I keep forgetting to check, but I don't think the route to Beijing still heads south from City Hall.

In my opinion, if you're interested in a more lasting public history legacy, better to get a street officially renamed, like activists did for Cecil B. Moore Avenue (formerly Columbia Avenue) or Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive (formerly West River Drive).

At least then your legacy will show up in Google maps.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

First Person Museum exhibit opens

A few of the objects and stories on display at the First Person Museum exhibit

After many months of hard work by lots of talented people, the First Person Museum exhibit opened at the Painted Bride Art Center on Friday. Woo hoo!

You can watch a short video about the project here, thanks to The Temple News.

You can read my past posts about the project here and here.

The exhibit will be open until December 18. If you're in the area, I hope you'll join us at one of the free gallery talks we're holding over the next week. All of the talks will take place at the Painted Bride Art Center at 230 Vine Street in Philadelphia. And did I mention that they're free?

Here's the full schedule of talks:

Thursday, 11/11 - 7-7:30 pm 
"Museum Voices: Who is an Expert?" -- Kathleen McLean, Principal, Independent Exhibitions

Friday, 11/12 - 7-7:30 pm 
"Our Objects, Our History" -- Graduate Students in Temple University's Studies in American Material Culture class

Saturday, 11/13
11-11:30 am - "Looking at History Through Our Things" -- Graduate Students in Temple University's Studies in American Material Culture class

7-7:30 pm - "Americans and Their Stuff" -- Julia Foulkes, Associate Professor of History, The New School

Sunday, 11/14 - 2-2:30 pm 
"What Makes a Museum?" -- Aaron Goldblatt, Partner, Museum Services, Metcalfe Architecture & Design

Monday, October 18, 2010

Major League Baseball Leading the Way in Metadata

Starting a new job plus getting ready for an exhibit opening means I've been awfully quiet on the blog recently. If only I had time to keep you posted on all that I've been doing and learning in recent weeks!

For one thing, I've been thinking a lot about metadata. I'll write a longer post about it one of these days, but in the meantime, check out this jealousy-inducing story about Major League Baseball's digital archive.

A team of MLB "loggers" now add metadata to game footage in close to real time, choosing from a list of 500 possible tags like "ground out" and "announcers booth" that describe not only what happened in a play but also what's visible on the screen.

All that tagging means unprecedented access to the moving images -- access that for now is limited to in-house staff.

But oh the possibilities.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First Person Museum Web Site Launches

Another of my professional projects is approaching its public debut: the First Person Museum.

As you may recall, I'm serving as the project coordinator for the museum, which is a new public engagement project by First Person Arts.

Envisioned as a "museum of the people," the First Person Museum is a collection of meaningful objects and the stories that go along with them. Our first exhibit opens on Nov. 5, 2010 at the Painted Bride Art Center.

In the meantime, the museum's web site is now live! You can share a story about a treasured object in your life, or browse the gallery of stories already contributed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Back to the Future, Sort of

I have about one more week of working elbow-deep in Civil War-era archival materials, and then I'll be turning my attention to a more modern era: the Great Depression.

I'll be starting on a new digital history project at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), where I've been working as a project archivist with the Digital Center for Americana. In my new role, I'll be helping to create online interpretive and educational resources about the early years of the Great Depression in Pennsylvania. I'll keep you posted!

In the meantime, you can read my recent blog post about women's views on the Civil War on Fondly, Pennsylvania, HSP's archives and conservation blog.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Digging for Civil War history

I swear I'll write a longer post soon, but in the meantime, check out my recent blog post on Fondly, Pennsylvania, the archives and conservation blog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

I write about HSP's collection of sketches of Confederate prisons, and how it relates to an archaeological excavation going on in Georgia.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

One Collection, Many Dramas

Check out my recent blog post on Fondly, Pennsylvania, the archives and conservation blog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

I highlighted one of the many interesting stories I've discovered in the Wister and Butler families papers (HSP collection 1962): the three duels in which Pierce (Mease) Butler participated between 1844 and 1866.

You'll have to read my post to learn how he survived so many duels.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ghost Dollars

Is capturing the interest of paranormal investigators one key to paying the bills at historic sites?

According to this Inquirer article, paranormal groups "now account for most of the funding that keeps Fort Mifflin solvent."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Archives and Museum-making

For the last few months, I've been working on two new(ish) public history projects.

For most of my professional hours, I work at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) as a project archivist for the Digital Center for Americana.

You can read more about my work over at Fondly, Pennsylvania, HSP's archives blog, and you can learn more about the Digital Center for Americana here. I'll do my best to cross-post here when I've written something new for Fondly, Pennsylvania.

I'm also coordinating a new project for First Person Arts called the First Person Museum. The museum is a collection of objects of personal importance to everyday people, along with the stories and histories that convey their significance.

You can read more about the project at First Person Arts' blog, and I'll keep you posted as we get closer to launching the museum online and opening our pilot exhibit in November 2010.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence From State Budget Woes

Washington Crossing Historic Park reopened its visitor center on July 1, thanks to the nonprofit group Friends of Washington Crossing Park.

The friends group formed last winter after the Pennsylvania Legislature slashed the park's funding, threatening the annual Delaware River crossing recreation. The group worked in partnership with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, which officially oversees the park, and now plans to open the park for tours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays starting on July 9.

But the debate over the state's poor stewardship of the park is far from over.

The park includes a large section of land administered as Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve. Back in May, the state House approved a bill to turn over the deed for those 130+ acres to the nonprofit Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve Association, which has been involved in managing the preserve since 1934.

The nonprofit association apparently sought the deed transfer five years ago, and believes the transfer will help its efforts to raise private donations. You can read executive director Miles Arnott's comments about the plan here. The Inquirer covered the debate over the deed transfer here.

Once again, the question arises: who are the better stewards of our historic sites, government agencies or independent nonprofits? Should we preserve our history primarily with taxpayer dollars or philanthropic dollars?

Of course, isn't this a moot point if the taxpayer dollars have disappeared? Thank goodness someone is trying to preserve these sites.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Free Speech, Protesters, and Historic Sites

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a Lansdowne man had a First Amendment right to protest abortion near the entrance to the Liberty Bell building.

The decision overturned lower court rulings that sentenced him to a year of probation for a 2007 incident where he defied a National Park Service order to move to a designated area.

I'll be interested to see what impact this decision will have (if any) on the type and tone of demonstrations held at Independence National Historic Park. And will we see more public demonstrations at other popular sites around the city?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

New Nonprofit to Support City's Ethnic Parades and Festivals

U.S. Representative Bob Brady announced today that he has formed a new nonprofit, the Greater Philadelphia Traditions Fund, to help support ethnic parades and festivals that now have to pay the costs of police and other city services.

(You can read my earlier posts about why the city pulled the plug on subsidizing costs for the parades here and here.)

Philanthropist Gerry Lenfest has agreed to donate $500,000 to the new fund over the next five years, and additional donations are apparently in the works.

Reporter Steve Highsmith writes that the fund aims to give at least $7500 each year to 10 groups: the Mummers, the Odunde Festival, the Columbus Day Parade, the Von Steuben Day Parade, the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Greek Independence Day Parade, the Gay Pride Parade, the Pulaski Day Parade, the St. Patrick's Day Parade and the Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

New Museum on the Parkway?

Family Court building, 1801 Vine Street, photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

Gov. Ed Rendell announced Friday that the Parkway will be getting a new museum (apparently to be named later) in the Family Court building at 1801 Vine Street.

According to the governor's press release, the city of Philadelphia will be accepting bids starting in June to convert the existing structure into a "museum with a new luxury hotel." (You can read more about the planned new building at 15th and Arch Streets in this Inquirer story.

As for the existing building, Rendell's office says the "hotel and museum on this site will be in keeping with both the architecture of Logan Circle and the Parkway and the museum character of the area."

Hm, could this be the new home for the currently homeless Civil War Museum?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reclaimed "Things" From Our Commercial Past

Claimed and unclaimed artifacts from the city's former Commercial Museum will be on display beginning Friday April 30 in a new exhibit at the Slought Foundation in West Philly.

The exhibit's curators seem to be considering some very interesting questions about cultural ownership, forgotten history, and the nature of museum collections.

But even more intriguing is the foundation's invitation to "members of the community" to borrow artifacts from the display.

You too can display remnants of foreign cultures (with no known provenance), in your very own home!

I wonder if the foundation would consider adding bar-codes and tags to these objects a la "Tales of Things," letting users create and track new memories for these orphaned artifacts. (For more on the "Tales of Things" project, check out the Center for the Future of Museum's recent blog post about it.)

You can read more about the Slought Foundation's "Commercial America" exhibit in this Philadelphia Weekly article, or on the foundation's web site.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The End of Student Field Trips?

With school budgets getting tighter and learning standards more stringent, many museums these days are creating traveling educational programs, online curricula, or even videoconferencing to reach schools that are no longer scheduling expensive field trips.

This isn't exactly new, but the New York Times published a nice update on the trend on Wednesday, with some eye-opening numbers from the assortment of institutions surveyed.

At the Museum of Science in Boston, school visits have dropped about 30% since 2007. At the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, school visits have dropped more than 40% since 2007.

The big question left unanswered in the article: what do museum experts think this trend will mean long-term?

How do these drops in school groups compare to museums' overall attendance trends during this economic downturn? Is there any evidence that in-school programs create enough excitement for families to visit the museums at a later time? And, most importantly, does it matter to the long-term viability of these institutions if kids stop visiting in person?

I recently had an opportunity to get a glimpse of one local institution's new "traveling trunk," which holds all the goodies that an educator will use to present the museum's program in the school or classroom.

It looked amazing.

I don't have a handle on how widespread this trend is in the Philly region, but Bartram's Garden, for one, received grant funding in 2009-2010 to develop traveling trunks on colonial history and natural science for several local schools.

For inspiration on what your own institution might be able to present, check out the Chester County Historical Society's list of traveling trunk programs, focusing on Lenape children, the American Revolution, the Underground Railroad, and more.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Free PSA Air-time for History, Arts Groups

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance announced a new partnership today that promises $500,000 in free media for local cultural organizations on the national cable channel Ovation, which is newly available in the Philadelphia region.

You can read the full announcement here, or read a good summary on the blog of Philadelphia's Chief Cultural Officer, Gary Steuer.

Local cultural groups have until May 6, 2010 to submit either 1) ready-to-go, 30-second public service announcements; and/or 2) content for one of the six themed "interstitial" short programs that Ovation is producing. You can find the submission/application form here.

So far, Ovation is planning one of the six themed short programs to focus on "history and historic sites," though on the actual application form, "science" sneaks in there in one mention.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Bright Future

The Center for the Future of Museums blogged last week about one possible museum future. In this imagined scenario, 24 years in the future, a museum stays relevant to a changed education system by supplementing its small permanent exhibits with an aggressive program of changing exhibits.

The scenario describes a museum focused on three key principles:

1) "Perpetual beta": To summarize, the changing exhibits are always works in progress.

2) "The process is also the product": The museum recruits students to serve on the teams developing the exhibits, and 60% of the students are non-local.

3) "Don't collect, don't preserve": This one involves using a 3-D printer to make copies of original artifacts for exhibitions, an interesting idea you can read more about here.

The first two principles seem especially useful and timely concepts for the many small to mid-size museums in this area to explore.

To take just one example, what could the American Swedish Historical Museum do with this model of changing exhibits and student involvement?

The American Swedish Historical Museum

I visited this interesting jewel for the first time this winter. Located in FDR Park, near Broad Street and Pattison Avenue (down near the sports complexes), the museum was founded in 1926 during the Sesquicentennial celebration in South Philly. After surviving the Great Depression, the museum held its grand opening in 1938, the 300th anniversary of the New Sweden Colony.

The museum is designed as a collection of miniature museums, each focused on an "area of Swedish accomplishment." Some exhibition rooms have decidedly 1930s flare, making the decor itself as visually interesting as the objects on display. The changing exhibit gallery is currently presenting work from two Swedish artists as part of Philagrafika 2010.

The museum's Pioneer Room, a romanticized 1939 version of a 19th century Swedish farmhouse

Obviously, this museum, like so many others, must grapple with limited resources and too many potential challenges to count. But what could the American Swedish Historical Museum do with another changing exhibit space, perhaps online?

Could the small staff create a model of vibrant, changing exhibitions that evolve over time, involve students, and further their mission of preserving and promoting Swedish and Swedish-American heritage, history and culture?

The museum's current galleries are so diverse that online exhibitions could explore topics as varied as New Sweden colonists' life in the 1640s to technological innovations like the first working propeller and early solar-powered engines. And involving students in the creation and evolution of such online exhibitions could connect the museum to audiences far beyond the Philadelphia region.

Certainly that's the kind of museum future I'd like to see.

Monday, March 22, 2010

CEO of Philadelphia History Museum Retiring

This is proving to be a big year for the newly renamed Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

Along with a new name, new branding, and under-renovation building, the museum will soon have a new director. Viki Sand, the museum's executive director and CEO, is planning to retire by June 2010.

A consulting firm is handling the search for the new director. If you or a colleague might be a good match for the position, you can read the job posting here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More Visitors, Fewer Dollars

The American Association of Museums (AAM) released an interesting report last month about museum attendance and funding in 2009.

The AAM surveyed its approximately 2,300 institutional members to ask how museums fared during this "year of recession." The responses are mixed.

Among the 481 museums nationwide that responded, 57% reported increased attendance in 2009, in many cases regardless of declines in funding. Among history-related institutions, about 59% of the respondents reported increased attendance.

The museums most often attributed the higher attendance rates to more marketing to local visitors, more people vacationing closer to home, new or special exhibits, and the relative low price of museum admissions among entertainment options.

Not surprisingly, the survey found that most museums experienced financial stress in 2009. Museums with larger budgets were more likely to experience "severe or very severe stress." The AAM defined severe stress as "bad, but I have seen worse in the previous five years," and very severe stress as "the very worst I have seen in at least five years."

Unfortunately for those of us looking for jobs in the area, the Mid-Atlantic region had the highest percentage of museums reporting severe or very severe stress.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Portland Bound

Tomorrow I'm flying to Portland, OR for the 2010 annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH).

I'll be presenting a poster on my summer project updating and expanding an inventory of African American historic sites in Philadelphia.

This will be my first poster session as a presenter, so I'm excited to see how it all goes. If you'll be attending the meeting, stop by and chat about the inventory project, public history in Philly, or the awesomeness of Powell's City of Books.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Celebrity History

NBC premiered a new show on celebrity genealogy tonight, a few weeks after PBS premiered its series on the same topic (different celebrities) in mid-February.

Who knew celebrity genealogy could make such compelling television?

The NBC show, "Who Do You Think You Are?", follows famous people (tonight, Sarah Jessica Parker) as they learn more about their family history with the help of professional genealogists, historians, and Ancestry.com -- an "official partner."

I cringed at the product placement stuff, but at least Ancestry.com offers a two-week free trial of their service. And overall, the show's not bad. Sarah Jessica Parker traveled to Ohio, California and Massachusetts to explore her ancestors' lives, learning about the California gold rush and the Salem witch trials along the way.

The PBS show, "Faces of America," is hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. If you watch only one, watch Gates' series.

On this show, Gates is the one who does the heavy lifting, preparing a scrapbook of family history for each celebrity, traveling to important sites, and interviewing the celebrities and their families about their lives. But Gates offers serious historical context as well, and tackles tough issues like the Japanese internment during World War II (Kristi Yamaguchi's parents were both imprisoned).

Hopefully all this celebrity genealogy will help inspire people to pay closer attention to their own history. As Gates says in the first episode of his show, "Sometimes when we read about the great events of history, we forget that history was lived by our very own ancestors."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Seaport Museum Giving Up Cruiser Olympia

The Independence Seaport Museum says it can't afford to keep the Cruiser Olympia, best known for its service as a flagship in the Spanish-American War.

The Olympia has operated as a floating museum for decades, overseen for the last 13 years by the Independence Seaport Museum. However, the cruiser needs significant repairs to its steel hull after so many years in the water. It was listed on the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia's 7th Annual Endangered Properties List in early January.

Just two weeks ago, the museum announced that its president, Lori Dillard Rech, had resigned.

Sounds like rough seas ahead.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Washington's Birthday Through New Eyes

I get a kick out of finding history in unexpected places, like in the "Restaurants & Food" section of the Inquirer.

Restaurant critic Craig LaBan wrote a two-part feature (ending yesterday) in honor of George Washington's birthday. The stories focus on Washington's slave Hercules, who was a talented chef and who escaped from Mount Vernon on Washington's birthday in 1797. (You can find both articles, as well as a handful of related multimedia resources, here.)

The stories include lots of rich details about the food of Washington's era, no doubt because it is LaBan exploring this topic.

But I love that LaBan's digging helped the professional historians connect some dots (detailed in part two), clarifying that Hercules escaped not from the President's House in Philadelphia but from Mount Vernon in Virginia.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Attention for Rare, 19th-Century Portraits of Free African American Couple

Though not newly discovered, rare ca. 1840s portraits of wealthy, free African Americans Stephen Smith and Harriet Lee Smith are rightfully in the spotlight again.

Part of the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, the Smith portraits are featured in a new self-published book that examines the man who painted them, James Stidun/Stidum. The painter was identified by the Smiths' grandniece as a "prominent Negro artist," which make the portraits even more extraordinary relics of Philadelphia's vibrant free black community.

You can see Stephen's portrait online (scroll down to the second blurb), but Harriet's portrait is in poor shape and has not been exhibited for at least 20 years. Perhaps this media attention will encourage a donation or two for conservation?

(You can view two other rare portraits from the city's free black community at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Last year, the museum mounted, on long-term loan, the 1841 portraits of Hiram Charles Montier and Elizabeth Brown Montier. You can read about the Montiers here, including Hiram's family ties to the city's first mayor, and see their portraits here.)

I learned more about Stephen Smith and his influence on Philadelphia during my summer project updating an inventory of African American historic sites in the city.

Among his numerous real estate holdings and philanthropic activities, Smith built Beneficial Hall (near 6th and Lombard Streets) as a meeting place for black organizations, and in 1867 donated $250,000 to establish the Stephen Smith Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons (near Belmont and W. Girard Avenues). His partner William Whipper admitted after the Civil War that the two had used their lumber business to transport slaves to freedom in Canada. You can read more about Smith at this ExplorePaHistory.com feature, higlighting the state historical marker for Smith's Home for the Aged.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Rewriting History (Textbooks)

The New York Times Magazine has published an interesting feature on how Texas is revising its social studies curriculum, and how that will likely affect most of the country's teaching of history.

A warning: you might be moved to curse out loud.

For the last few years, Texas has focused on one curriculum subject area for revision. Last year, the board tackled science, and therefore evolution vs. creationism. This year, it's American history.

In a nutshell, the conservative members of the Texas Board of Education are interested in making sure the founding of America is taught as "an overtly Christian undertaking." And before you say, well sure, the founders were Christians, the board members have an acknowledged legal and political agenda in this effort. I'll let you read the full story to get all the sordid details.

As Martin Marty, emeritus professor of the University of Chicago, says, "The more you can associate Christianity with the founding, the more you can sway the future Supreme Court."

Why does Texas' curriculum matter to us? Texas buys or distributes 48 million textbooks annually, so the mainstream educational publishers essentially "tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

New Branding for Atwater Kent Museum

Apparently the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia is reworking its brand and identity as it renovates its building.

Originally named for the radio manufacturer Atwater Kent, the museum plans to relaunch as the Philadelphia History Museum in 2011.

You can see the new web splash page here, and read about the new logo here. You can read the designers' thoughts on the branding process here.

This is tricky stuff, rebranding.

In my former life in communications, I spent a lot of time focused on brands and identity. How does a design stylebook reinforce or contradict core values? Will the public pick up on what you're trying to communicate with color, font, image and language choices?

In this case, I think the new name is definitely a winner. It's clear and mission-focused, in a way that the Atwater Kent name never was. (You can read more about how the museum came to be named after Kent here.)

I'm excited by the designers' plans for a story-based brand, and the teaser poster about William Penn's beer-making looks interesting.

But I'm on the fence about the logo itself, or more specifically, splitting up the word "history" on two lines. The new logo has passing similarities to the logo for DesignPhiladelphia (at least to this non-designer), but that logo keeps its central concept -- design -- on one line.

The new URL, philadelphiahistory.org, also makes a lot of sense, but the museum will be competing with the oh-so-similar phillyhistory.org, which is run by the Philadelphia City Archive. Then again, both are focused on the city's history, so perhaps it doesn't matter too much that they have similar URLs.

More importantly: what will the public think?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Making Meals a Part of Visitors' Experience

Before visiting the National Museum of the American Indian (pictured at right) this fall, I never considered that a museum might be worth visiting just for its cafe.

The D.C. museum's Mitsitam Cafe offers Native foods from throughout the Western hemisphere. Its winter menu includes grilled venison, adobe rubbed loin of pork, cedar planked fire-roasted juniper salmon, and much more. Seriously, it's well worth a visit if you're in the area. (And the museum is great, too.)

The New York Times writes that more museums are "moving away from the middle-school approach to feeding visitors." The Guggenheim and the Museum of Arts and Design have just opened new restaurants, and the Whitney is planning one.

Unfortunately, I can't think of many history-oriented sites in the Philadelphia area that offer interesting dining options.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a small but serviceable cafe, as does the National Constitution Center. But I haven't found any sites (yet) rising to the level of the menus offered at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Perhaps I should finally visit City Tavern, which says it offers "authentic 18th century American culinary history."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A $1.2 Billion Boost

The Haas family's end-of-year gifts to the William Penn Foundation and the newly formed Wyncote Foundation have "given area nonprofits a psychological boost," according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.

But, as the reporter points out, it remains unclear whether the gifts will translate into more grant money for local nonprofit organizations.

Certainly, the size of the gifts is exciting: $747 million to William Penn Foundation and $502 million to the new Haas-family-created Wyncote Foundation.

But the Haas family had previously given grants out of their family trusts, so it may just be a reshuffling of the existing grant-making deck. No word yet on specifics of the new Wyncote Foundation, or how it will continue or diverge from previous family trust grants.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Princeton professor Cornel West gave a speech today in Atlanta, GA, urging the crowd to not to "sanitize" King's legacy or "simply enshrine his legacy in 'some distant museum.'"

West no doubt intended to inspire listeners to continue King's activism. But his comment got me thinking about the trickiness of commemoration.

How do you maintain the complexity and contradictions of a real (and remembered) person while you're celebrating his special-ness?

This, of course, is the kind of question that public historians and others who work on the front lines of the cultural-heritage profession face all the time. We wrestle with how to tell critical stories about our past, hopefully crafting strong, compelling historical narratives that both educate and engage the American public.

But even the best critical constructions of American public memory are subjective, and can include myth as well as truth. We have made progress in telling more critical stories of our past, but we have much more work to do.

Getting back to Dr. King and his legacy, two local efforts are working to commemorate his local connections to the Philadelphia area.

In Chester, civic leaders are raising the last $40,000 of a $900,000 project to commemorate King's three years in Chester (attending the former Crozer Theological Seminary) with a bronze sculpture. You can see photos of the full-size model for the bust by clicking here to go to the Inquirer story about the project.

Chester already has two state historical markers documenting King's connection to the area, one celebrating his three years in the community and another his attendance at Crozer. You can read a longer piece about King's time in Chester here, at ExplorePaHistory.com.

Meanwhile, leaders in West Philadelphia are planning to commemorate an important visit by King during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

The 1965 Freedom Now Rally near 40th Street and Haverford Avenue drew 10,000 people. The state approved adding a historical marker in 2008 and, last I heard, it will be installed later in 2010.

Monday, January 11, 2010

State Layoffs Averted; Local Institutions Still Struggling

The Legislature approved table gaming legislation last week, averting Gov. Ed Rendell's threatened lay-off of 995 state employees. You can read the Inquirer's story about the final deal here.

The ax may not have fallen (this time), but cultural institutions in the region continue to struggle due to cuts in state and local funding. In two rather random examples:
* Battleship New Jersey, located in Camden, NJ, announced last week that it was laying off 12 of its 19 staff and cutting back hours, because state contributions and overall income have plummeted.
* The Mummers Museum is struggling to find funds to replace the $54,000 per year subsidy the city of Philadelphia cut during its own budget crisis.

Of course, financial uncertainty is not new for public history or other cultural institutions, but it remains to be seen whether the economic crisis will force any of these institutions to shut their doors for good.

Monday, January 4, 2010

$747 Million Gift to William Penn Foundation

In more positive funding news, the William Penn Foundation announced last week that John C. Haas has given the foundation $747 million to further its mission of improving the quality of life in the Philadelphia region. You can read the press release here.

Haas' parents established the foundation in 1945, and John chaired the board for more than 30 years. His son David has chaired the board since 1998.

The foundation reports that the $747 million gift came after a "re-organization of the Haas Trusts reflecting the evolution of the family and its charitable interests." The foundation's board of directors plans to phase in increases to its grants budget.

More PHMC Layoffs Threatened

It may be a new year, but it's the same old bad budgetary news from Harrisburg.

Gov. Ed Rendell warned today that he'll lay off 995 state employees -- including four more staff from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission -- unless the Legislature approves table gaming legislation by this Friday, January 8. The Inquirer posted the details here.

No doubt Rendell is using the threat of additional layoffs as a political bargaining chip, but I've heard few alternatives for raising the $250 million in new taxes that table games would supposedly raise.