Temple University Urban Archives

Despite attending Temple on and off for 6 years, I had never been to the University’s Urban Archives. As I quickly found out, I didn’t know where it was either as I waited for the class on the ground floor of the library. As a psychology major, I had immediately regretted this upon my first visit. Hell, as a fan of Philadelphia history I immediately regretted it.

The lack of space and staff dilemma noted by Fredric Miller is still a very real problem for not only Temple, but also, as I found out by my interview with the head archivist, the Philadelphia College of Physicians Medical Library as well. The new $170,000,000 Temple library is bound to be 210,000 square feet, yet will likely not dedicate as much space as it should to preserving Philadelphia history.

Chrissie Perella is the first archivist at the College library in over ten years and the entire staff is composed of 4 full time employees- the largest staff it’s had in over 20 years. This correlates to a different issue posed by Miller: the size of collections. While this seems like a good problem to have for an archive, Perella explained why it is not: “It has been a struggle to work with collections that were largely ignored for so many years, and to untangle and correct what had been done, since past Library staff did not often leave documentation” (C. Perella, personal communication, April 7th, 2008). Such expansive, poorly maintained collections certainly present a challenge.

The Urban archives are smaller though, and seemingly much less daunting to me. I was very surprised when assistant archivist John Pettit told us they have been digitizing material since 1999. They are certainly ahead of the curve, but still face the issue of time. Well prepared, Pettit also presented us with a picture taken by a social worker to document their effort. It displayed exactly what Miller was talking about in the archival problem of the poor appearing usually as criminals or clients.

Walking out of the archives, I was compelled to create a research account for future research projects. Keeping in mind my institutional profile, I did a quick search of the archives for the Philadelphia College of Physicians/Mutter Museum afterwards. Most interesting and relevant to my paper and presentation, is an old color transparency of the Medical Herb Garden, which is a part of the museum still today. I will definitely be consulting the archives in my last two semesters at Temple.

Guest Speaker- Patrick Grossi

Though small, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia serves an important purpose. Even smaller, the designated Advocacy department consists of two people. One of these two people, Advocacy Director Patrick Grossi was gracious enough to speak to our class on Tuesday. We were able to pull him away from his current project and “life for the last seven months” in lobbying for the protection of three houses on the 700 block of Samson Street. These houses were designed by Edward Collins and Charles M. Autenrieth, significant Philadelphia architects at the turn of the 19th century and maintain considerable historical background contributing to Jeweler’s Row. The proposed 29 story condominium tower would certainly appear intrusive and with three empty lots in the same general vicinity, it would simply be better served elsewhere without overstepping an important part of Philadelphia’s historical aesthetic.

I certainly could not do Grossi’s job. It would simply stress me out being so conscious of the rapidly dissipating history around Philadelphia. Each landmark lost, I would take personally. For example, the Boyd Theater in Center City which housed a breath taking interior was destroyed- only the have the replacement project fail to be adequately funded.  Grossi has his work cut out for him as there is no grace period before demolition after a permit to do so is issued. In addition, the Philadelphia general operating budget gives the organization only about $430,000 dollars to work with. While I understand the city of Philadelphia certainly has bigger issues (Crime rate), mayor Jim Kenney was apparently entirely more devoted to preservation work while on the campaign trail than in office.

What struck me most, and I had never thought about it this way, was Grossi’s remark that keeping people in their houses is preservation too. In the Sharswood area, technically the neighbor in which I live, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has seized a decent amount of properties through eminent domain. By constantly hearing kids play in the street and knowing how many families live in the area, this troubles me. Between this, the Boyd Theater, and the Jeweler’s Row saga, losing core turn of the century institutional fabric is just one more thing that will disquiet my mind as I walk the streets of Philadelphia.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum

I was lucky enough to be afforded a beautiful day in Texas to visit the Umlauf Sculpture Garden in Austin. Beauty, as it goes, is an abstraction that must be approached with caution by the interpreter to Freeman Tilden. One must be careful to do two things: create the best possible viewing methods to display it and to do so should produce an atmosphere or mood. When dealing with aesthetics, one cannot simply deem something beautiful as that is in violates the very act of viewing the thing. I agree with Tilden in that “we should not attempt to describe that which is only or better to be apprehended by a feeling”. While I love historical museums, art museums and sculpture gardens can be literally and figuratively a breathe of fresh air.

The Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, while relatively small when compared to Brookgreen Gardens or Grounds for Sculpture is a nice little gem filled with mainly bronze and cast stone sculptures by Charles Umlauf. It engages with the community by providing yoga for children and adults, along with various workshops. The museum portion currently houses an exhibit featuring Farrah Fawcet and her mentorship under Umlauf.

Poorly executed signage includes those which that are too simply long, too brief or fail to get their message across. There is an art to this, a manner in which to employ inscription to achieve the transmission of some type of information while maintaining interest and not under or over doing it. I was reminded of this when I stumbled upon this plaque in the sculpture garden near a bridge. This Molly Ferguson Gottlieb could have been a benefactor or friend to Umlauf- it is not specified. They could have had a brief biography but instead there was a short but impactful poem celebrating memory. It also seems to be an original poem by an anonymous author as I am unable to find anything about it online. I definitely feel as though Tilden would have approved of this inscription as it subtle and eloquent, elicits a peaceful feeling and certainly achieves its goal of a grateful sense of memorialization.

 

Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms

Henry Ford intended for Greenfield Village at Dearborn to be an “animated textbook”. This is the aim of living history museums. Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm in Stroudsburg, PA was exactly this to me as a field trip in elementary school. Though these types of institutions can be criticized for “over sanitary charm” (looking too staged), a successful one will achieve what it intends to do and that is merge the transmission of historical information with live performance. I cannot say this is necessarily the case for Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms in Austin, TX.

Living history museums have a special kind of work cut out for them as the founding of the United States was ugly and actually unjust to so many peoples. Amy Tyson documented how Fort Snelling glazes over the glaring cruelty of slavery and deems it a topic just too uncomfortable to touch while Conner Prairie quite actively engages with it in their “Follow The North Star” program. Pioneer Farms features a faux Tonkawa Native American encampment. The booklet calls it “A Village of the First Texans in Year 1841”. I cannot tell you how hard I scoffed at this. While the Tonkawa were in alliance with Stephen F. Austin “The Father of Texas”, and fought alongside the Texas Rangers to battle the Comanche, it still blows my mind how the connotation of the literature is one that makes seem as though American influence was one of primarily friendly cohabitation with Native Americans. “The First Texans” to me just makes it sound like a voluntary assimilation instead of what actually happened in Young County, when in the 1850s, their reservation underwent a slaughter by white settlers.

The booklet goes on to state: “By the mid-1800s, most Tonkawas- a nomadic people that practiced Plains Indian traditions- had disappeared from the Austin area. Known as keen hunters and trackers, they were prized as scouts by the armies of both the Republic of Texas and the United States. After being relocated to desolate areas west of San Antonio, tribal members in the 1870s were removed to a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) where they remain today.”

First of all, it slyly states they were a “nomadic people”- that may be accurate but let us not slide that in there right before saying they had disappeared from the Austin area. They certainly were not freely roaming around hunting and gathering in the Texas area without challenge. Secondly, relocation and removal are just polite terms for forcing Native Americans out of their homelands so white people could enable Manifest Destiny. Now while I would not expect a family friendly living history museum to go into such detail, I wondered if  all of this combined was somehow worse than excluding the Tonkawa narrative at all. I reached the conclusion of no, it was not worse though all of it sits badly with me. It goes on to chronicle the founding of the Fritz-Kruger Farm there in 1868 and the Frederick Jourdan Farm next to it in 1873. I suppose they at least leave people to do the math.

Jourdan-Bauchman Pioneer Farms also features an 1886 “Cotton Planter’s Farm” to which the literature points us in this direction: “Although the price of cotton dropped steadily after the Civil War, rich soils, good growing conditions and new farm machinery provided most farm owners with comfortable lifestyles. Most had large and well-appointed homes, well-built barns and outbuildings and finely bred livestock.”

If that is not the most white washed thing I have read, I am not sure what is. A pdf form of the booklet can be found here on their website if you wish to further antagonize yourself: https://www.pioneerfarms.org/our-sites-1/
The problem of dealing with the political travesties of his country’s founding in living history museums is not an easy one to solve, but I can be certain this is not it.

I found myself disillusioned with Pioneer Farms for further reasons- a re-enactor with pastel pink hair, the signage inside many of exhibits was too long (large paragraphs of small texts in exhibit on ink wells), and I may be nit picking at this point, but the grammatical error on the Jolly Cabin sign below. Overall, I found myself wishing I had spent the day in the Texas sun elsewhere and saved myself the eye rolls.

 

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is as awesomely decrepit as it is picture-esque. “Engaging in the practice of active imagination” as Mary Teeling does in her visit of Dennis Severs’ House is not hard to do here. Or is it?

The atmosphere of Eastern State is naturally a foreboding one. This is not only because of the decay but the function of a penitentiary itself. Pacing the narrow corridors of the prison you can’t help but feel constricted and maybe even surveilled with the watch tower glaring over you. It is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have an idea of what is was like to be an inmate there, but truly, none of us could have any real concept nor would we want to. I suppose that is in part the beauty of Eastern State, it’s immense, intimidating structure, when paired with an audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi would give you a memorable and informative experience in a place you would otherwise want no part of. Indeed, there is also a more participatory route one could take in the aptly named Hands-On History demonstrations as well.

But the ambiance was not the only poignantly dark thing conveyed in our visit. Admittedly, my favorite thing about this class is the behind-the-scenes commentary afforded those who guide us along the site. Sean Kelley, Director of Interpretation and Public Programming at Eastern State, did an excellent job of this. Before detailing how difficult it is to talk about prison reform without sounding too leftist, he let us in on public statistic before giving us a more intimate view about how Eastern State will deal with the topic of race within this issue. Although the state of Pennsylvania’s population has increased by 7% since the era of the penitentiary’s closing, the incarceration rate has risen 800%. That is an astounding number. Inside of of this is the issue of race and the disproportionate number of black prisoners, to quote Kelley, “How do you talk about something like this to white people on vacation?” Good point. Kelley was expressively awkward in dealing with this even to us. Not quite sure if “racially diverse” was even the right term to use, he seemed a little abashed on the subject.

I was pleasantly surprised upon hearing that a public historical site such as Eastern State Penitentiary would even attempt to tackle such a current problem, though, I suppose that is what good sites do- they use the past to force you to reflect upon the state of the present. Prison reform is even discussed at length in the mission statement, but is careful to insist the programs take no real position either way. The transition of the display regarding international incarceration from 2 dimensional sign to life sized, tangible graph outside certainly gives weight to the issue and leaves an impression. Overall, I was very impressed with the site’s effort to shed light on such a touchy matter. To quote Kelley one more time (although this was said an explicitly joking manner),

“Eastern State: come for Al Capone, stay for the human rights issue of our generation.”

Atlantic City Trump Museum Project

I was not entirely sure what to expect from a guest speaker Levi Fox, creator of the Atlantic City Trump Museum Project and fear this will be a problem for many prospective visitors. The aim of the potential museum is “To Help Share The History Of Atlantic City In The Age Of Trump” as per its website. The lecture certainly conveyed museum was more about the history of Atlantic City and Trump’s influence on it. To me the name insinuates it is a museum about Donald Trump located in Atlantic City (i.e. The Philadelphia Museum of Art). I was pleasantly surprised upon hearing Fox and the Trump Museum Committee hope to bring to light many narratives about Atlantic City itself, including that of its rise and fall. It will heavily feature donations from ordinary people and personal stories of lives impacted by the openings and failures of the casinos Trump financed in the city.

Nina Simon’s essay “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums” stresses the importance of the participatory model encouraging “a safe space in which to meaningful ideas”. A museum title including the name of such a polarizing figure will need to somehow create this while being as bipartisan as the website states. A sincerely participatory museum, at its core, is responsive to its community members and visitors. Indeed, engaging the community seems to be the strongest aspect of the project so far. The Trump Museum will certainly be a prime example of a museum founded on participatory techniques.

As Simon further suggests, reconciliation between visitors’ previously established context and the often stiff, impersonal form of historical information can be achieved by visitor generated content. Shared authority is certainly flourishing and the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum ‘s Top 40 proved it can be wildly successful. While the Trump Museum would certainly participatory, it will be hard to balance the rigid authoritative transmission of economic decline involving a political figure (the President of the United States, nonetheless) while remaining entirely bipartisan in displaying personal narratives. On the other side of the side if the coin, one of the strengths of such personal stories is that they will certainly force people to consider their opinion of Trump in ways only achievable by first person accounts. Someone with an entirely vile opinion of Trump will be made to consider the intimate tales of opportunity by those he created jobs for. One of the best parts of participatory museums is that they enable a real sense of diversity while giving the visitor the gratification that their voice is being heard and listened to. The Trump Museum is certainly capable of doing this in an area that needs it most.

The Powel House

One of the best things about studying at Temple is the access to the wealth of American history that is Philadelphia. As the nation’s first capital, visiting notable sites around the city creates authentic historical experiences I will take with me long after I graduate. I gained a unique perspective visiting the Powel House one could not receive from a book or webpage. One of our guides, executive director of the museum, Jonathan Burton had lived in the house as site manager. Burton stressed the significance of the role Elizabeth Powel had in its operations as well as its Russian Jewish background in Wolf Klebansky. He illuminated the wider scope of its influences that can be glanced over in today’s culture; these are the integral parts of landmarks lost in Wikipedia pages or simply reading historical markers. Burton expressed his core desire for the Powel House to be used as a learning tool and on Tuesday morning, it was just that.

 

A key feature of house museums is their innate ability to act as a vehicle for gender studies. This is extremely apparent in the far too untold story of Elizabeth Willing Powel. Born from a wealthy business family and married to a man later deemed “Patriot Mayor”, she is by no means a footnote in the story of the Powel House. In fact, I believe our guides discussed her far more than Samuel Powel himself. As a close friend to George Washington, she was more key in the structure of early America than the history books would lead to believe. Elizabeth was a multifaceted woman with a reputation for being a charming hostess. She also evolved into a businesswoman of sorts, selling roof tiles from the house as an early way of cashing out on the link between consumerism and memory culture. Burton disclosed that one of his loftier goals would be to eventually get the site renamed to the Elizabeth Willing Powel House due to her tremendous sway in its day to day operations. These types of narratives are crucial and serve a core function of museums in general.

 

Philadelphia is an extremely relevant area for the history of preservation, a core reason for this being its richness in remarkable architecture. As William J. Martaugh notes in “Keeping Time”, a meaningful renaissance in American architecture occurred during the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Held in Fairmount Park, some state exhibits highlighted colonial furniture denoting a reflection upon design and form. Preservation of architecture was underlined at the Wagner Free Institute of Science (Victorian era) and the Powel House. Interestingly enough, almost nothing inside the Powel House is authentic- save for its floors and the marble within them- because “those were the only things that couldn’t be taken”, according to Burton. The Georgian architecture of the Powel House, however, had and continues to have great influence; all you have to do is look out the window of the same room recreated in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Across the street from the second floor parlor room is a string of apartments also crafted in the Georgian style.

 

The Powel House succeeds in its mission to foster appreciation for American history and architecture despite being a quiet presence capable of being lost in the mix of the Betsy Ross House and Liberty Bell. The guides admit its visitors can be somewhat niche- tours will come in to a see a particular set of porcelain and most people who come in usually have sought it out. In the face of this, I see the Powel House as an important institution not only meaningful to Philadelphia, but to gender and architectural studies in the US.

 

Picture taken by me, Feb. 14th, 2017

The Wagner Free Institute of Science

Before yesterday I had never been to the Wagner Free Institute of Science. I’ve lived in North Philly for half of a decade and at one point passed the museum almost everyday on my walk to campus. Which then begged the question- why had I never checked it out? I guess it was because I didn’t know much about it, and I certainly didn’t know it also functioned as museum and a beautiful example of Victorian architecture. Nor did I know if it was still free, whatever it actually was.

I suppose this is the institute’s conundrum. There seems to be very little effort to attract visitors. I love natural science and history exhibits, yet I never even knew it was there. So it did not serve as a surprise when the curator explained they were trying to expand their outreach. The question is how to stay relevant as “Templetown” continues to gentrify this section of the city. Self report survey/preference forms and “new signage” are some of the ways the curator noted when I asked about their course of action. Though, by new signage, I certainly hope they don’t mean the charming hand written labels still being used. I am sure this is probably not what she meant, however, given what a spectacular job the Institute has done of staying true to it’s a original form and the very museum itself being a fossil of sorts. It is interesting to think about how people of the nineteenth would’ve made use of the labels considering illiteracy and the latin nature of scientific names. That was the idea of the museum, though. First, you were to have walked into a booming lecture hall (the seats arranged in such a way for ample viewing of the speaker), listen to a speaker and then make your way to explore the items firsthand.

I’m not entirely sure the methods described by the curator alone will create the ‘pull’ the museum seems to be lacking, which saddens me because it is such a spectacle to behold and I don’t feel it being a beautiful hidden treasure is what it deserves. There is something beautiful about the Wagner Free Institute of Science in that it doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It has preserved it’s own legacy extraordinarily well in a location of rapid development. There is something so endearing about peaking around in the squeaky drawers and the faint smell of dust as you hear the floorboard creak below you that I love. When you step into the museum, it is like a time machine that transports you away from the chaos of the busy city and socioeconomic problems right outside its walls. Despite these things, I love North Philadelphia and the Wagner Institute just gave me another good reason to.

 

Taken by me, Feb. 2nd, 2017 at The Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Independence Mall

“Mere stuffed skins are but a poor resemblance, but they may be kept where nothing better can be had.” – Charles Willson Peale addressing a group of potential high ranked investors two years before the opening of his Philadelphia Museum of the same name, 1792.

What can be said of Charles Willson Peale’s taxidermic animals can also be applied to Independence Mall, located in what Philadelphia’s tourism agency deems “Historic Philadelphia”. Like one cannot procure the essence of a beaver by looking at a stuffed body, as opposed to observing one in nature, it is impossible to convey any true sense of a busy colonial street in 21st century Philadelphia. This is the challenge all historical sites face: to invoke the best sense of past they can in the present. But in the quest of preserving and showcasing history, often some gets swept away. This is true of the commercial and residential architecture demolished in favor of the three block grassy area in front of Independence Hall. This leveling can be looked at as Jill Lepore’s concept of antihistory due to the literal destruction of what was representative of a period between the American Revolution and the 1950s, when the renovation took place. This fact polarizes Philadelphia history in favor of the more marketable Colonial era against the modern feel of the structures that make up the Mall.

Despite all of this, I believe the open space does achieve a sense grand monument. In addition, it does offer an aesthetically pleasing juxtaposition between Independence Hall and the skyscrapers behind it. I will also say walking alone through the Mall did illicit a sense of wonder and the open space leaves your creative mind to fill in the blanks with horse drawn carriages and men in waistcoats.  However, “it looks nice” is not enough justification to erase one part of history in order to excessively glorify another for me.

Though, before all of this, was Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum located on the second floor of Independence Hall. Although relocated and eventually sold, this is where the Mall has its origins. Today it is made up of the Liberty Bell Center, National Constitution Center, Old City Hall and Congress Hall. It also includes a visitor’s center, cafe, and the Free Quaker Meeting House. The Liberty Bell Center has always struck me as a space too small to fulfill it’s need. It seems they favored aesthetic over functionality here, but that is a common theme around the Mall.

I will always have a great fondness of these few blocks regardless of the unfavorable history behind it. Particularly Independence Hall, as it is the setting of one of my favorite stories and coincidentally the topic of my Temple University admissions essay. In short, I fainted in the Assembly Room after giving blood for the first time. My father and best friend had to carry me to a bench in the hallway. This proves Rosenzweig and Thelen’s assertion that museums serve a function to deepen relationships between people meaningful to us. I say this not only because I had a particularly memorable experience there, but because we chose to explore it together in the first place.

Some of the aforementioned negative space in front of Independence Hall. Taken by me;, January 29th, 2017.

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