Before today, I had never been to the archives in the basement of Paley Library. I honestly had no clue where it even was, and it took my fifteen minutes of wandering around to find it. But now that I know where it is, I will definitely be returning. I was amazed at the amount of information that they had on record there. I have never gone to a physical library for research purposes. Throughout High School and College, I have always been reliant on online sources and digital libraries. To be honest, I was intimidated by the amount of information in the Urban archives and the amount of effort that must be required to search for a specific article, picture or document. The resources that were made available through the archives, such as the film reels that our guide showed (I never caught his name since I arrived late), are valuable resources for understanding what daily life was like years ago. Although pictures of empty alleyways and films of nightly news broadcasts are not the most interesting parts of history, they are still vital resources that need to be organized and preserved so that they can be easily accessed for years to come.
After Mr. Grossi’s visit to class today, the word that I think best described his position is “frustrating”. He told countless stories of historical sites that he has had to fight for against the developers seeking to tear down historical building to make room for high rise condominiums and hotels, such as the ongoing battle to preserve Jewelers’ Row. Although this section of houses is considered a Philadelphia landmark to many, the effort to tear some of the buildings down and replace them with a high-rise seems unstoppable.
The talking point that stuck with me the most after his talk was to “take what you can get.” When asked about the Divine Lorraine, and how it would be reopened as high end apartments, Grossi responded that, although it wasn’t great that the building would be open only to the wealthy, at least it would be preserved. This attitude could also be applied to the issue of the Cathedral in Fishtown, which was saved, but has now been proposed as being converted into condos. Although it would be best for these historical buildings to be reopened for public use, this is rarely an option.
Mr. Grossi’s talk focused on the idea of balance. His job is a balancing act between preserving historical sites from destruction, and allowing new buildings to be constructed that would allow the city to be revitalized.
Today’s visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary was very informative about the difficulties that can be encountered when a story is too difficult to discuss for an audience. Of any historical site that I know of, there is none that would be more appropriate for talking about the issue of mass incarceration in American than Eastern State. This historical site already has a great platform for discussing this topic because of how long the site was open for and because of how much changed over that time. The factor that makes presenting this message difficult is the background of the visitors to ESP, as most are white vacationers. This, in combination with the racial background of the Board in charge of the site, has presented an issue, as it is difficult to tell the story of prison from the perspective of an African American, when few people involved in the planning of the site have experience with this perspective.
I believe that Eastern State Penitentiary has taken steps in the right direction in addressing this issue. First, they have acknowledged that an issue exists, which is the first step in solving it. They are also taking steps to have better relations with the community around the Penitentiary. The input of the community could help this site to perfect the difficult narrative that they are trying to tell.
Our class visit by Levi Fox today provided a very interesting opportunity to learn more about how historians can fully take advantage of the narrative and perspective of a community. Prior to today’s class, I had a very basic understanding of the effect that Donald Trump had on Atlantic City. I knew that the closure of his casinos had negatively affected many Atlantic City residents, but I did not know the details of how. The people of Atlantic City have a story that deserves to be heard, and a museum would be one of the best ways to present this narrative. Fox described the project as “non-partisan”. I think that the Atlantic City Trump Museum Committee was right in this approach, as they are basically leaving any interpretation of Trump’s impact on Atlantic City up to the residents. For this type of project, community input is essential. In order to create a message that is in agreement with the general opinions of the people who live in the area that the museum focuses on, the community must be consulted.
The art piece that I found most interesting was the projector showing 16 different news broadcasts simultaneously. The purpose of this art piece was to make the audience feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of information. This sense of being overwhelmed made me consider what sources will be used to remember the current events fifty years from now. I am reminded of something I read once, that the Library of Congress is archiving every tweet ever sent. That is an unbelievable amount of information. It makes me question if historians of the future be able to pick through the massive amounts of tweets, news broadcasts and countless other pieces of media to assemble an accurate idea of what life is like today.
I also found out what the translation of the Nautical flags piece is. It translates to “the King is helpless.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, so I did a quick google search. The only results that I got back were about chess. As I’m sure you know, the King in chess is never captured, but defeated when he is threatened with capture and unable to move out of that position. To be honest, I have no idea of what the relationship between nautical signal flags and chess strategy is, or what the message of this piece is, and am interested if you have any clue what this means.
One thing that stuck out to me during our class visit to the Powel House was the openness of the museum in addressing other topics besides Samuel Powel. For example, when we visited Independence Hall, Professor Bruggeman mentioned that although the second floor of Independence Hall was where C.W. Peale first opened his museum, the tour guides and staff were discouraged from mentioning this part of the building’s history. This was because when the building was designated a National Park, there was a specific era that the building was required to focus on. A private House Museum such as the Powel House is not required to abide by this type of restriction, allowing for the House Administration to teach about all the different owners, residents and eras that this house has been a part of. This trait was exemplified by the opera event that our guide talked about extensively during which actors from numerous time periods held tours and interacted with each other.
One of the interesting traits of the Powel House was how inauthentic it was. Through it’s history, entire rooms had been removed and sold to museums as period rooms. But after work began on turning the property into a House Museum, these rooms were rebuilt with great accuracy, making for a compelling backstory to the house.
I was very impressed with our visit to the Wagner. I have always had some interest in the late 19th and early 20th Century, and the Wagner has not changed at all since this time. The first floor of the museum was a hall that reminded me of a college lecture room, which makes sense as the Wagner’s original purpose was as a free educational institute for working class Philadelphians. Upon entering the actual museum section of the Wagner, my first thought was a sense of awe. There was just so much on display in such a relatively small place. It was very organized and had been preserved to remain exactly as it was in the 1800’s.
With other museums, I feel that there is an overwhelming amount of information that accompanies every item on display. Strangely, I enjoyed the Wagner more because it did not have this. Sometimes, museums can be stressful or boring (at least to me) if they require the audience to read paragraphs of background for every display item.
I left the Wagner, not having gained any increased understanding of bird anatomy or geological information, but with an increased sense of wonder of the Natural World. The Wagner was overwhelming in the concentration of its display, yet simple in the presentation of information, making for a strangely comforting museum experience.
Our site visit to Independence Hall and the other museums on the Mall were very interesting, especially related to the history of Charles Peale and his museum. Peale has been incredibly influential to the development of museum exhibits. Standing in front of Independence Hall, we looked out over the expansive grassy field between the Hall and the Constitution Center which faces it. According to Professor Bruggeman, this space was created after a large section of warehouses, residential homes and other buildings were torn down in the 1940’s. This action is almost identical to the thinking of the Tea Party that we discussed in class. Many of the claims that the Tea Party made were focused solely on the far past and the present, with little regard to anything in between. This is very similar to the creation of Independence Mall by tearing down older buildings, leaving only Independence Hall and the new National Constitution Center. We ended our visit by looking around the President’s House, which is on the end of the Liberty Bell Pavilion. The story behind the construction of this area is a prime example of how historical interpretation can cause controversy, as the Liberty Bell Pavilion was built where the President’s House, where slaves were held, once stood. This led to a conflict between Philadelphia residents, the National Park Service and historians who were concerned about how the history of the building would be taught. The compromise was a ghost building that shows interpretations of the house from all three sides of the debate.