I love my job. I’m the head of a major historical institution in a major American city, which sounds really important, doesn’t it? But it’s like trying to wrestling eels, because there’s stuff everywhere in our building and half the time we don’t know where it is (don’t tell!). Occasionally we don’t know what it is, either.
But I don’t do it for the personal glory, and certainly not for the money. I do it because I love history—I love discovering unexpected things (which happens in our collections quite often), and I love presenting history in ways that make it come alive for people—school children, tourists, even people who have lived around Philadelphia all their lives. I want them to stop in front of an exhibit, or come in to do some research, and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that.”
The problem is, Philadelphia, like most big cities, has a lot of problems these days. I can tell you what it looked like the year it was first settled, and at each stage along the way—how and why William Penn laid it out, what happened with the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, and the impact of the Industrial Revolution. Bits and pieces of all of those slices of history are still visible, if you know where and how to look.
Some of those parts aren’t pretty now. For a long time Philadelphia boasted a lot of thriving industries, and then those closed or moved away, and what was left was too many crumbling neighborhoods, just inviting crime. I recently had an up-close and personal experience in one of those neighborhoods, one that almost got me killed.
That made me mad. There had to be something I could do, to make people see what those parts of the city had once been, and to inspire them to try to bring them back somehow. I know better than most that you can’t erase or reverse history. But I really believe you should try to save the best parts and build on them. That’s why my job matters, and why I’m trying to make a difference.
What about you? Do you visit historic places? Was there some place you saw as a child that you’ve never forgotten?