Historical Society of Pennsylvania Chief Executive Officer David Brigham said the decision by Philadelphia
Orphans Court Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper to seek greater details and assurances before approving the City’s transfer of the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent collection to Drexel University was a “victory for the process.”
Saying that the “devil was in the details,” Judge Woods-Skipper asked the City and Drexel on Feb. 28, to provide more specific information on a number of issues, including how the estimated 130,000 items in the collection will be cared for by Drexel after it takes ownership. Of immediate concern is the condition of a storage facility where the items are currently being stored.
At the hearing, Drexel and the City agreed to return to court within three weeks with more details in the proposed transfer agreement.
“This is a victory for those who sought greater clarification about what Drexel intends to do with this collection,” Brigham said. “One cannot underestimate the importance of these historical artifacts. This isn’t just about George Washington’s desk or Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves as interesting as those items are. This ultimately is about us – who we are as Philadelphians; who we are as residents of the Commonwealth and who we are as Americans. This is about where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Without the proper care, consideration and access to the public, we lose a part of who we are.”
The lengthy hearing in Orphans Court raised even more questions, Brigham said.
“’We heard alarming news about the conditions in the storage facility that if left unchecked could pose an immediate threat to these priceless treasures. Furthermore, there are still many unanswered questions about Drexel plans to care for the collection and provide access to the public in a way that presents them in a clear narrative of our shared history and ensures that the items themselves are protected.”
HSP and prominent members of the history and culture community have raised questions about the lack of specifics in the transfer agreement, which was first proposed more than two years ago. Drexel has said it will not display the collection in a museum. Rather it will digitize the items, while also loaning some of them out to other institutions.
The Atwater Kent Collection includes more than 10,000 items donated by HSP with the understanding that they would be displayed in a museum.
“As a cultural leader in this most historical of cities, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has a responsibility to stand up for those who believe that history belongs to us all and for those who believe that we can best learn from the past when we have access to the art and artifacts that make up the past,” Brigham said.