“From Riches to Riches” A visit to the Hill-Physick House

Now that I’ve got the obligatory Henry Hill Goodfellas reference out of my system with that title, The Hill-Physick House was an incredibly interesting site to visit. It is just one of many examples of engaging places to visit in Philadelphia, that simply just aren’t as well-known as The Constitution Center or Independence Hall. The visit today not only including things I expected, like seeing portraits and antique furniture, but a look behind the curtain at the physical work and backroom engagement that are a part of the field of public history.

The first part of the visit, with the tour of the various rooms and aesethics of the days of Henry Hill and Dr. Physick, reminded me of Gary Kulik’s “Designing the Past History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present.” Specifically, the section of the piece on period rooms, because that was what the rooms in the Physick House were. The level of details and the interconnected nature of the rooms, like the Monticello windows and the paintings from Joseph Napoleon just gave the rooms a real presence of history. The period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1920’s worked so well for one reason, “Even wholly commonplace items-andirons, pewter mugs, and betty lamps- became, under the Metropolitan’s influence, art objects”[1] The Hill-Physick does the same thing, drawing attention to ordinary objects like the designs on the wallpaper, and the windows along with portraits of the Doctor and his wife.


Photo of The Hill-Physick House

One interesting aspect I noted was some overlap in themes between this site and the Second Bank Museum. Which I found out are incredibly close by on the way back to the train, though my sense of direction is not something to boast about. At both sites, the question of “who is our audience, and how can we best engage them” was at the heart of the discussion in public history. Also, the multiple layers of stories beneath the surface level, especially in the lives of women in the past. Both Elizabeth Physick and Mary Morris lived more complicated lives than their portraits let on.

The other aspect of the tour, the look behind the scenes with real life applications of public history work, was just as engaging. It was interesting to sit in on the meeting, and to hear how much work and the process of how these history programs actually happen. The element of social media and audience engagement, were the answers to these questions of “who is our audience really?” The opportunity to see a real-world example of these methods and public history engagement is something I find relevant.

[1] Kulik, Gary “Designing the Past History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present.” Pg 17

“Citizens of Hope and Glory” A Visit to The Portrait Gallery at the Second Bank Museum

What colors come to mind when 18th century Philadelphia comes to mind, red blue, but pink. This radical viewpoint of aesthetics draws a viewer in automatically when they walk into the pink Greco-Roman style architecture and into the world of the 18th century. The Portrait Gallery at the Second Bank Museum invites a modern audience to connect to people from the past on a purely human level. Through a number of design elements and aesthetics the museum makes the viewer feel like they are standing in the presence of not just great men but the ordinary American at a time when all these ideals were carved into the national existence. The staging of these portraits and the design are all calculated to be accessible to the guest, such as framing portraits at different heights and making the guiding material dynamic and approachable.

Gary Kulik’s “Designing the Past History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present” provides examples of the evolution of museums through important characteristics. One such was this idea of collecting common objects and “permanent land-marks of the progress of the world’[1] that originated at the Smithsonian. The Second Bank Museum’s collection of not just portraits but remnants of Charles Winston Peale’s natural exhibits are a modern example of this concept. Like discussed in the classroom, the Second Bank Museum’s Portrait encounters big questions like who is our audience, and how do we connect with them? One thing that is overwhelming when visiting is how vibrant and detailed everything is, the level of storytelling at work at a single painting and all that is explicit and implied. Little details such as the color choice and background of portraits tell a hidden story in every piece of art. It combines a level of hero-worship someone would come to expect when visiting a site so close to Independence Hall, with a much broader lens on the average American within the Museum. On a first visit to the Second Bank Museum, an audience can witness history through ordinary objects

[1] Kulik, Gary “Designing the Past History Museums Exhibitions from Peale to Present” pg. 8