The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent was recently reopened in 2012 to introduce a contemporary history through a blend of technology as well as historic objects obtained in the museum’s permanent collection. I recently visited the museum and was amused by the permanent exhibition, “City Stories: An Introduction to Philadelphia” by the way they chose to implement technology as well as historic objects in a timeline. This was a particularly heavy content room filled with multiple objects, text panels, and video displays. The gallery space is inviting and bold, but smaller than it appears in pictures. The room is arranged chronologically to display the history of Philadelphia from the founding (over 300 years ago) to the real-time activity of Philadelphia via social media.
The exhibition was profoundly exciting at first glance. The presentation is nothing short of beautiful with shiny new panels and fresh paint, although the room is tightly packed with 40 surrounding objects- a lot for an introduction. Although the aura of the exhibition was modern, the battle of continuing to be a history museum was showing through their display cases. For an exhibition being about the people and for the people of Philadelphia, these cases made it difficult to feel connected. Preservation is obviously a huge concern to the museum professionals at PHM due to the geographically precious object collection all bound in these small cases.
The information of the exhibition lay on text across the panels in one large display. The multiple sized fonts were complicated for my curiously distracted eyes and I could not focus on one paragraph for too long. The information I did absorb brought a sense of recognition and humility even to a Californian like myself. Philadelphia is a new and exciting territory for me and everything I was reading was all knowledge about this journey of over 300 years.
As for the content collection in the room, it was too much to take in on one visit. I was reading with my head down so often that I was not able to acknowledge the paintings in the room until the end. The fact sheets for the paintings and objects are located on the bench of the exhibition- a quick look at the basic information about the paintings and a few of the objects. Although the fact sheets are used to credit objects that belong to The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, it would have been helpful to have some information on the objects and their role in shaping Philadelphia.
What bothered me the most was the ability for me to read while distracted with the video displays of current oral histories. Voices of locals are played again and again reminding the visitor that history is happening everyday and it is uniquely special to each citizen. Repetitive and informative, these videos generated information I was not ready to be introduced to quite yet in my self-guided tour.
The City Stories exhibition is exactly what has been challenging about history museums incorporating technology to create contemporary exhibitions; the contemporary exhibition adding modern technology. As a contemporary exhibition, I believe they hit the nail on the head incorporating texting and social media, as well as the oral histories. Overall, this exhibition has been successfully molded into an open book of Philadelphian stories where everyone is able to share.