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 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,, also makes a lot of sense, but the museum will be competing with the oh-so-similar, 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?