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.