Philly History Museum

When I was young, I toured the Atwater Kent museum and was fascinated by the toys, drawings of the city and Philadelphia objects on display.

But I don’t recall ever going again.

And that’s a problem for a small museum like the renamed Philadelphia Museum at the Atwater Kent. It needs repeat visitors to help stay open and thrive.

So the newly named museum, which reopened in September 2012 and has over 100,000 items in its vast collection, now will change exhibits several times a year.

I hope this approach works. The museum, located in a historic 1925 Greek Revival building designed by John Haviland, is a treasure trove. To me, it’s one of the most interesting, engaging and thought-provoking museums I have visited.

Why? The museum pokes and prods you … and pushes you to become a better observer.

How to view a portrait

You’ll especially see this in Faces to Facebook, the portrait gallery on the second floor. Signs there suggest seven ways to look for clues in the paintings. Among them: focusing on the pose, clothing, hands, person, setting, relationship and objects.

(That’s good advice for viewing items in the rest of the museum, too.)

The portrait subjects include notables like George Washington, William Penn and Charles Wilson Peale, plus lesser-known subjects. An unusual painting of Reverend William Hogan, controversial excommunicated pastor of St. Mary’s Parish, shows him wearing dark glasses. I’m not sure why.

Overall, the museum tells a no-holds-barred story in its various galleries, and displays and juxtaposes some 400 items for maximum effect and contrast. For example, in one exhibit, you’ll see a brass compass, silver teapot, redware tankard … and repugnant iron slave shackles.

In another section, you view the original wampum belt presented by the Lenni Lenape Indians to William Penn in 1682, a stone boundary marker for the Mason Dixon line, which came to be the dividing line between the north and the south in the Civil War) and a slave harness with a bell – all displayed close by.

Wampum belt, stone marker for the Mason Dixon Line, and a slave harness with bell.
Wampum belt, stone marker for the Mason Dixon Line, and a slave harness with bell.

A quick orientation:

On the first floor is “the world’s largest map of Philadelphia.” You can walk from center city to the suburbs in seconds, and get a birds-eye view of the entire area. It’s fun and educational for children and adults alike.

There’s also a community based gallery near the front door. On my first visit, an exhibit by Energy Coordinating Agency about energy use in row houses was so flat that the space seemed wasted.

On my second visit, Private Lives in Public Spaces: Bringing Philadelphia’s LGBT History Out in the Open, presented by the William Way Community Center, was a huge improvement. The exhibit included videos, photos, display cases with uniforms and buttons, places for comments and more. It brought the LGBT struggle to life. Next up: Over 25 years of The Nutcracker in Philadelphia.

City Stories, also on the ground floor, presents an interesting look at Philadelphia’s history, warts and all, from 1682 to the present.

Upstairs, besides Face to Facebook, is The Power of Objects, and rotating exhibits titled Played in Philadelphia and Made in Philadelphia.

There I saw Phillies Fandemonium, a look at baseball through the eyes of Phillies’ fans, and Craft Brewing: It’s a Beer Revolution, which celebrates local brewers and features a large color photo mural of the bar at McGillin’s Olde Ale House.

Replacing them this fall will be exhibits on former Pulitzer-Prize-winning Inquirer editorial cartoonist Tony Auth’s Philadelphia cartoons, and one on presentation silver, respectively.

My favorite quote at Atwater Kent:

“When I found I had crossed the [Mason Dixon] line, I looked at my hands to see if I were the same person … the sun came like gold through the tree and over the field and I felt like I was in heaven.”

By Harriet Tubman, who escaped from the slave state of Maryland to Philadelphia in l849.



Address: 15 S. 7th St., Philadelphia, PA 19106
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students and teens (13-18); children 12 and under free. Museum members and active military, free. $20 for Family Pack (2 adults, 2 teens).
Phone: 215-685-4830


This article was originally published in the November/December 2013 issue of the Society Hill Reporter.  It has been reprinted with permission.