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.