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Mar. 1, 2019 10:57 am

Show us our history

Drexel University says it will tend to the shuttered Philadelphia History Museum's collection of artifacts. That's a good thing, isn't it?

The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

(Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia)

Have you seen — really seen — the wampum belt the Lenape Nation presented to William Penn in 1683?

For years it had pride of place as part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of History at the Atwater Kent, and if you didn’t see the belt before that museum was shuttered in 2018, you may soon get a chance to see it online, thanks to Drexel University.

But don’t hold your breath to see in person.

As announced Wednesday by the university’s Vice Provost Rosalind Remer, Drexel proposes to take ownership of  the approximately 130,000 artifacts from the history museum and tend to them — which includes digitizing some of the collection to make it viewable online. Under the proposal, the actual artifacts would be available to scholars for research purposes, and to curators looking to select items for inclusion in exhibitions. But there are no plans for any permanent public display.

“We [have] no specific aspirations for these collections beyond their protection, proper management and increased accessibility to the public,” Remer said.

The statement about increased accessibility is a tough sell. It seems inevitable that if the proposal is accepted without inclusion of a permanent exhibition space outside of academic confines, the general public will see the actual artifacts  — which include such disparate items as Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves, George Washington’s desk and colorful vejigante masks used in Philly’s Puerto Rican day parade — only occasionally, when they are loaned out for exhibit.

Some members of the audience who had gathered at the National Constitution Center to hear the announcement focused on that aspect.

Also in evidence in the event? Some recriminations about the city having “starved” its history museum out of the funding needed to keep it operational.

In fact, the city’s funding for the museum during the past few years was low compared to other cultural institutions in the city. In the mayor’s proposed general fund budget for fiscal year 2018, for example, the history museum was to be allocated $302,000. The Office of Arts and Culture was budgeted at $4 million; the Philadelphia Museum of Art at $2.5 million; and Mural Arts, $1.7 million.

Facade of the Atwater Kent building.

(Photo by M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia)

The city has vowed to financially support the proposed Drexel effort for the next five years.

“This will show in the City’s budget, under Parks and Recreation as they will have the contract with Drexel,” said Sarah Reyes, the deputy communications director at the Office of the Mayor. “The total over five years is about $1.25 million. This amount is roughly the same as our current contribution to the Museum, which is about $300,000 annually.”

Perhaps the best argument for keeping an actual collection on display somewhere was delivered in a tweet Denise Valentine, the editor for PHLAssembled, posted during the audience Q&A:

History, Valentine reminds us, lives on Philadelphia’s very streets, and its legacy lives, materially, in our museums, where we can see it front of us — even, if we are lucky enough, where we can reach out and touch it.

Both Drexel and city officials involved with the proposal are asking Philadelphia residents to share their thoughts at the Philadelphia History Museum’s website, where the proposal can be read in full starting Friday. Comments will remain open through March 20.

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