Note: The Philadelphia History Museum is closed indefinitely. This article will be left up in hopes that it reopens soon.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I visited the Philadelphia History Museum. I had decided to go on a whim, figuring that it would be interesting to learn the history of the city.
The Philadelphia History Museum is housed in a grand Greek-revival building a few short blocks from Independence Hall. The site of the Franklin Institute for over 100 years, the building was saved from demolition in 1938 by Atwater Kent, a radio pioneer and inventor who also helped preserve the Betsy Ross House. He then donated the building to the city of Philadelphia on the condition that it become a museum dedicated to the city’s history.
Opened in 1941, the museum was known as the Atwater Kent Museum until 2010, when it was changed to the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent (a long and confusing name that reminds me of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
Today, the museum strives to tell the story of Philadelphia through the objects and people who have made it special over the years.
I’m not going to lie: it took me awhile to figure out the Philadelphia History Museum. As I toured the museum, I just couldn’t understand the exhibits. Instead of the standard informational plates that tell what an item is, the museum more often than not tells the items’ significance to the city’s history and people. Even more confusingly, the museum features odd items next to each other, such as a 1990s quinceanera crown next to William Penn’s shaving bowl.
However, about halfway through my visit, I finally began to understand the museum; not that it should have taken me that long, of course. After all, the museum’s signage and brochures clearly tell you that the museum tells the story of Philadelphia.
Once I was able to wrap my head around this, I began to understand the museum much more. It doesn’t just tell you about historical artifacts, but it tells you how they’re connected to the history of the city, how they make locals feel, and why the artifacts matter.
For me, there were two very interesting sections of the Philadelphia History Museum.
The first was the large, open room that featured a giant map of the city. Standing on the city roadmap, prominent locations noted, and neighborhoods marked, I was able to get a much better understanding of the city’s layout. I was able to see significant locations that I hadn’t yet visited, and better understand how the places I had visited fit together geographically.
I also really enjoyed the portrait gallery on the second floor.
While most of the paintings were of people of little historical consequence, the signage explained how the person wanted to be viewed based on the painting. Did they want to be viewed as hardworking because they were sitting at a desk? Did they want to be viewed as heroic because they were wearing their military uniform? Just like the other exhibits, the portrait gallery doesn’t just give facts, it tells a story, and helps you better understand both the paintings and the people in them.
Overall, though, I don’t think most tourists should bother visiting the Philadelphia History Museum. Sure, it has a unique approach to telling the city’s history, but it just doesn’t have a major “wow” factor. That being said, locals or anyone who has a strong connection to Philadelphia may find this museum fascinating.
Note: My visit to the Philadelphia History Museum was hosted by Visit Philly. The opinions in this post are my own and were not subject to review prior to publication.
Philadelphia History Museum
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 10:30a-4:30p
Cost: Adults: $10, Children: Free
Address: 15 South 7th Street