Friday, June 29, 2018

Requiem to a Retiring Museum

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
Despite several years prowling through Philadelphia's great repositories of history to research my book Boathouse Row I had never visited the Philadelphia History Museum, formerly known as the Atwater Kent. But hearing that the museum was immediately closing after the failure of a  possible merger with Temple University, I ran out today to check it out.
The collection is odd: a little of this and a little of that. There's a gallery of oil paintings of famous and not so famous Philadelphians, highlighted by a portrait of William Penn by an unknown artist and one of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
William Penn

There's a room of Norman Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post, published in Philadelphia. One, from 1960, asks the question "Is there a Woman's Vote?"  Fifty-eight years later, we're still wondering

An entire room was dedicated to Octavius Catto, a noted African American educator of the 19th century whose story was brought to light by my former Inquirer colleagues Murray Dubin and Dan Biddle in their book, Tasting FreedomSince its publication in 2010,  Philadelphia has celebrated Catto with numerous events, readings, and most recently a statue, the first memorial to an African American in the city.

To my disappointment, there was little to amplify my knowledge of Boathouse Row but for a James Peale portrait of Frederick Graff, the engineer who in 1821 built the Water Works, which used a hydraulic system to pump water to the city. Another result was that its dam, which flattened a turbulent river, allowed rowing to emerge as a great Philadelphia sport. Also, there were a few photographs by Frederick Gutekunst, a noted photographer of the mid to late 19th century who, I discovered, was also a rower.
Photo by Frederick Gutekunst

A few other items resonated with me. I loved seeing an old Bulletin newspaper "honor box" as it was called, because once you put in your  quarter, you could lift out as many newspapers as you wanted. I've got one in my house, which we obtained after the paper folded in 1982!

Other quirky things: George Washington's pocket watch, William Penn's shaving bowl and snuff box and a shell and leather wampum belt, dating from about 1682 . It's supposedly the one given by a Lenape chief to William Penn in a gesture of good will.
There was also a gorgeous silver and gold "presentation sword"  inlaid with diamonds and amethysts given by "grateful Philadelphians" to General George C. Meade for his victory at Gettysburg.

Let this brief report be a requiem to the Philadelphia History Museum. May it reopen some day,  hopefully with more stuff in it!
Sword given to Gen. George C. Meade