For our last site visit we went to the Urban Archives at Paley Library. I had never been to the Urban Archives before, however I had been to an archives before since the institution that I am focusing on is the National Archives. I was particularly interested in learning about these archives, because my visit to the National Archives, didn’t give me a great impression of how archives operate. I am particularly interested in archives, because I see them as basically the house of all knowledge. They house information that affects and pertains to everyone, which to me, makes them very powerful institutions. After visiting the Urban Archives, my confidence in archives was reaffirmed. Walking through the back room, and getting to see the stacks of photographs from decades past, was exactly what I was expecting. I could happily send hours looking through that material. One of the coolest parts of the tour was at the very end, some of us stayed behind to ask some more questions, and to see the Steenbeck machine in action. I had never experienced anything quite like it before; watching a news real from the 60’s on a tiny screen; seeing civil rights riots and press conferences. Whether this is true or not, it felt was as if we were the first people seeing these video’s since they were first filmed. I think this speaks to one of the powerful things about archives. The history that is publicized for the world to know, is really only a fraction of the information, but archives have the remaining pieces.
In class we had the opportunity to hear from Patrick Grossi who works for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Mr. Grossi gave us a brief overview of the objectives of the PAGP and how they work with the city and its communities to facilitate the preservation of the many historic buildings in Philly. Preservation was not something that I knew much about, at least not in any detail. Mr. Grossi gave an interesting insight into a part of public history that was unknown to me at the time.
I thought it was really interesting to hear how, since his time working at the PAGP, he approaches sites from a more practical standpoint rather than just wanting to preserve them all. Ideally all historic sites and building would be preserved, however that is not realistic in the growing, metropolitan city like Philadelphia. A lot of these historic buildings are in prime real estate, and there are plenty of building companies who are wanting to purchase them. Hearing how he balances the want to preserve as much as possible, with the practicality of operating in a growing city, and the fact that most of time he is coming up against billion dollar companies, was really interesting. When I left class, I wondered where I stand on the matter, because as a history major, I obviously see the need for protecting historical sites, however I think you have to pick and choose your battles rather than try to save all of them.
Our site visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary was the one site visit I was the most looking forward too. This was somewhere I had been wanting to visit for a long time, but haven’t had the chance. I’ve walked past the penitentiary many times, and have always found the towering walls to be intimidating. I imagine that is what they were intended to do. Not only meant to keep people in, but also keep people out. When we were given the background history of the prison, I was struck most by two things, Firstly, that it was designed for solitary confinement, in order for the prisoner to repent successfully. What struck me about this, was how contradictory that is to today’s prison system, where the objective is to punish rather then letting them the opportunity to repent. The second point that fascinated me was the fact that the prison has only been closed for a relatively short period of time, and that it technically became a museum while still an operating prison. I think this speaks to how the prison fits within the history of Philadelphia, and the history of the countries justice system.
Hearing how ESP has been able to not only generate high attendance rates, but also turn a profit as a historical museum, was a nice change of pace from a lot of what we have read and seen this semester. A lot of what we have read and seen throughout the semester has been about how hard it is for historical museums to be successful given the financial constraints they are under. This was certainly true for ESP, but they have been able to adjust over time and create a product that consumers want. Ideally, history museums wouldn’t have to be so concerned with turning a profit, and more concerned with telling the story, but that is not realistic. Finding that balance is one of the biggest hurdles of public history, because at the end of the day, you are still trying to sell something, and selling history, whether it is a broad history like at the National Constitution Center or a specific history like ESP, is a challenge. Of course, it should not go without saying that the Halloween season and everything they have during this time, is a major contributor to their financial success. However, even during the regular months, ESP has been able to create an experience better then most of the other places we’ve seen. ESP’s new commitment to telling the story of race and inequality in prisons, which is a major problem in America today, I think will allow them to continue their success.
In class, we had the pleasure of hearing from Levi Fox, a public historian who has taken on an interesting museum project. His project is a museum in Atlantic City, NJ, dedicated to Donald Trump’s casino empire and its impact on the city. When I first saw heard that someone was attempting to create a museum that centered on Donald Trump, I was apprehensive at the thought of a museum praising him but also, admittedly a little pleased at the idea of their being an anti-Trump exhibit so soon into his presidency. Most of all, I was curious how such a museum deal with him now being president. Levi presented us with the same question at the beginning of his lecture. He admitted that creating the exhibit, that intersects Trump as a business mogul and now President was a tricky undertaking. However Levi, made clear that the aim of this exhibit was now in honor of Trump or his presidency, but rather an intensive look at his role in the development and downturn of Atlantic City. The focus of the museum it to tell the story of Trump in the city and all of his casinos, both good and bad aspects. It is not a shrine to Trump, but it is neither an anti-Trump museum.
Levi presented his aspirations for the museum very well. He hopes the museum to be a new revenue stream of the city, which has hit a rough economic time. The part of his presentation that I found most interesting, besides that whole premise of the exhibit, was when he was describing how hard financing these small museum projects can be. Hearing him go in detail about the struggles to secure enough financing, and how he has had to shoulder almost all of the work, clarified how little money there is for small projects. If major museums, as we have seen throughout the semester, struggle with financing, there is even less hope for small museum projects such as this one. Although making this project a reality is definitely an uphill climb, Levi was still excited by the opportunity to tell the story of Trumps time in Atlantic City.
On Tuesday we went around the corner to the Tyler Art Gallery here at Temple University. We were tasked with trying to identify how history was being represented in the art pieces, while also thinking about how art is used in museums. This was my first time going to the art gallery in Tyler, so I was excited and slightly intimidated. As I began to walk around, I was struck by the talent of my fellow Temple students, as well as the variety of mediums of all the art that was on display. The first pieces I saw were pretty abstract and did not have any clear historical interpretation. However, when I walked into the main hall way, where the majority of the art was being displayed I came across several really interesting pieces.
The piece that struck me the most was one of the first I saw in the main hall way. It was a very simple piece, however it packed a big punch. It was a small projector pointed towards a clear white wall, projecting a 4×4 square of news broadcasts. 16 different news broadcasts in total, all from different news sources and agencies. All of these different news castings were reporting on the same thing; the war in Syria that has been raging on for several years and has dominated international attention most recently with the refugee crisis. The political statement this piece was making was very evident, but also very captivating. When I first walked up to the piece it was just resetting so I was able to see it from start to finish. It started with only one broadcasting playing, then another started and so on, until eventually all of the news castings were playing all at once. The noise that this created was pretty overwhelming and made it hard to concentrate on just one of the new castings, but I imagine that was the point of the piece. As I was watching it, I began thinking about how art and artists have the unique capability to interpret history as it is being made. What is happening in Syria is a current event but it is history nonetheless and it is being made as we speak. However, it could be years until there is an exhibit in a history museum about the war in Syria, because history museums deal exclusively with things from the past. This is not to say that history museums do not serve a purpose because they only deal with past events. History exhibits are hugely important towards shaping the public perception by understanding and reinterpreting past events. However, I think there is something to be said about trying to understand the significance and perspectives of an event as it is happening, that artists are more in tuned to.
Our third site visit was to the Powell House in the Old City neighborhood of Philly. Powell House is a historic house museum, and a great example of 18th century architecture, and design. The history of Samuel and Elizabeth Powell, and the line about George Washington dancing in one of the rooms, quite frankly didn’t interest me much. To me, the most interesting part was the history of how it became a historical house and how it has been able to maintain as such. This interested me because it speaks to gender dynamics, class and racial dynamics, and the whole concept of period rooms being sold.
Firstly, gender dynamics played into the formation of it becoming a historical house. The house was saved from destruction through the funding of Francis Wister and the Colonial Dames. This history was similar to that of George Washington’s house that was constructed through the funding of a women’s organization. I find it interesting that women seem to have lead many efforts in historical preservation, yet the narrative that they perpetuate is still one that is male dominated and patriarchal. Another interesting aspect of how Powell House came to be was the class and race dynamics that became more evident the more we were told. Francis Wister, was a wealthy white women, and therefore she had the means and privilege to put thousands of dollars into restoring the Powell House. While you could argue that, that privilege was being put to good use by saving the house, she no doubt used it to create her own narrative. One that minimized, if not totally erased that of the servants and slaves that worked there and were apart of its history.
Finally, the one other aspect of the Powell House the captured my attention was how the majority of the house was not original, and that many of the rooms had been sold to other museums. The concept of period rooms being in other museums, was one that took me a while to wrap my head around. It seems odd to me that, one would put a whole room in a museum, as a way to tell and show the history of that room, instead of restoring the original room in its original building. When you remove a period room from its original structure and its historical context, you are automatically changing how it is perceived, and therefore the history it is telling.
For our second site visit, we went to The Wagner Free Institute of Science. The building itself is a prime example of 19th century architecture, and is located basically on Temple’s campus, although not technically. When walking up to the building, two things caught my attention. Firstly, given how the building has been preserved, it sticks out among the homes and apartments that are all more contemporary. Secondly, I had never heard of the Wagner before and was surprised when I realized how close it was to campus and where I live.
When we went in to the building, I was instantly greeted with a look of 19th century interior design. This continued as we were guided into the auditorium. A big room filled with seats, positioned in a circle around the center. It was not hard to imagine the room filled with people from the 19th century, given that all the seats had been maintained, and the original wood floors would creek with every movement.
After hearing more about the history of the Wagner, we were guided upstairs into the exhibit room. The upstairs exhibit room, was honestly amazing for a number of reasons. First, It gives you a direct look at how the 19th century was exhibited back then. It was a full sensory exhibit. You see how it is uniformly organized, how it feels how the radiant heat, and even how it smells from the old wood. All of these things work in unison to transport back to the 19th century. The second reason why the Wagner was amazing, was because of what was being exhibited. The room was full of cases of natural scientific artifacts that ranged from stones and taxidermied animals. All of the artifacts were accompanied by cards detailing their name. Many of these cards appeared to have been hand written, which was very impressive. My personal favorite of the day was the cases of bugs. Not because I have any particular fondness for bugs, but because the cases were filled, from top to bottom with bugs ranging in sizes, and they were all evenly spaced. The attention to that amount of detail, and for it to still intact truly exciting to see.
The other week, I had the opportunity to visit Independence Hall and the surrounding area. Due to human error on my part, and the maze of road closures on the part of the President, I unfortunately missed the group and was thus left to my own devices. I started my self-guided tour walking around the grounds of Independence Hall. The last time I’d been to Independence Hall, I was a child, and have little memory of that trip, so as I walked around, both inside and outside, it was very much like experiencing it for the first time.
As I walked around the Mall, the narrative that was trying to be conveyed became quite obvious. The preservation of the buildings and rooms, the cobblestones streets that surrounded the Mall, and the expansive green space that continued for two blocks. All of these things, were working together to transport the viewer back to the time of independence and more importantly, the time of Americas greatness. Given the current political climate, I could not walk around, seeing all this, without a applying a very critical and political lens. When I walked through Congress Hall, and Independence Hall, these places took on a whole new meaning, within the context of today. It made me think of how, the meaning of a public historical site can change, because the audience brings their own bias with them. Maybe, if my political feelings were different, I would have viewed Independence Hall as this beacon of democracy and all around great place. However, because I brought those bias’s with me, those feelings were lost on me.
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