Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent Reopening Represents 330 Years of Philadelphia HistoryBy Tara Nurin |
What object best represents you as a Philadelphian? Is it the 1976 Larry Bowa card your dad bought at your first Phillies game, the label from the Yards Philly Pale Ale bottle you drank the night you met your wife, or a picture you snapped while walking by a MOVE demonstration?
These are the types of fragments that comprise modern life in Philly, and they’re the types of ordinary yet sentimental items that curators at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, re-opening this Saturday after a three-year renovation, are building into exhibitions to intimately personalize the experience of living in Philadelphia for visitors from Rio to Rittenhouse Square.
Far from being another museum that retraces the footsteps of the founding fathers — as valuable as those lessons are — this history museum is very much a living one. Working off the omnipresent question, “How would your family choose to present its history?” curators sought to transform the formerly named Atwater Kent Museum into a technological marvel that connects with visitors on a human level and never loses its relevancy. With ever-changing installations that alight on topics as far-ranging as Negro league baseball, the Philadelphia Film Office, Gamble and Huff and yes, Ben Franklin and George Washington, the museum maintains a mission to present an authentic mix of the famous and the pedestrian, the high-brow and the populist, the old and the new.
“Our museum doesn’t focus on one period of history,” says executive director and CEO Charles Croce. “We’re not the Betsy Ross House. We’re not just one segment; We represent 330 years of Philadelphia history, right down to the Occupy movement.”
To engage a contemporary audience and to conserve as much of the 6500 square feet of public space in the Historic District building as possible, Croce ordered that almost every gallery be equipped with truly interactive technological features that invite visitors to learn more by calling up interviews, videos and audio elements from mounted iPads instead of reading two-dimensional interpretative panels that might have layered the walls. The idea is also to allow visitors to customize their experience by taking in as much or as little information as they want.
“I put myself in the visitor’s position. Do I want to speak at you or do I want you to take what you wish from these experiences?” explains Croce.
Technology also plays a pivotal role in helping the museum both incorporate that human element and morph frequently into a thoroughly novel experience. Along with the 100,000 museum-held artifacts that will take turns being showcased and the three galleries that will completely change over approximately every four months (those galleries are Made in Philadelphia, Played in Philadelphia, and the Community History Gallery where local organizations design and install their own work), permanent exhibitions like the multi-media “City Stories: An Introduction to Philadelphia” allow visitors to text descriptions of Philly to a public message board and to submit digital photos of themselves for display.
Though most galleries debut during a free open house this weekend, the lobby gallery, open since February, has already attracted 7000 visitors. Half of them came from outside the region and a full quarter of them hailed from outside the United States. It’s an early victory for a staff that embarked on a one-year, $1.5 million renovation in 2009 that ballooned into a $5.8 million overhaul that shut the museum for three years.
“Money, followed by money, followed by funding,” quipped Croce when asked why the executive team delayed the scheduled relaunch seemingly dozens of times. As it turns out, after construction began on the modernization, trustees realized they should take advantage of the opportunity to upgrade the 1826 building to an extent that that would allow them to borrow and display items too old and fragile for then-current environmental conditions. As construction progressed, engineers discovered there was much more work required than anticipated. The fortunate, though almost accidental, result is a re-invented museum with entirely updated (often energy-saving) systems that presents a new face to the public with revamped branding and a richer user experience.
While it’s true that Croce still feels his holdings are heavy on 18th and 19th century objects and light on the decades post-1950, the former marketing executive can at least now promote his center as one that meets 21st century expectations. The proof can perhaps be found in the two of the changing galleries, where opening exhibitions represent the quintessential American themes of beer and baseball. But at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, they’re translated into terms that are exclusive to the modern Philadelphia experience: Phillies Fandemonium, which chronicles Phillies fandom in the modern era, and Craft Brewing: It’s a Beer Revolution.blog comments powered by Disqus