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

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.