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The museum of Philadelphia past

Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

4 minute read
The original home of the Franklin Institute. (Photo by Willjay via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
The original home of the Franklin Institute. (Photo by Willjay via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Whether they arrive by birth or by choice, people tend to stay in Philadelphia, where we nestle in neighborhoods, keep traditions, and generally like doing things the way we have always done them. It’s easy to identify a local: When asked how things are, they reply that things were better years ago. Even if they weren’t.

We are all about the past. Living here, how could we not be?

Our past, displayed

Which makes the Philadelphia History Museum an excellent place for natives, even those who don’t usually go to museums. It combines history and nostalgia, showcasing the city’s 330-year past, starting from events none of us actually experienced and sliding forward to periods many remember, or at least heard about from parents and grandparents. The collection consists of significant pieces that would fit in any museum as well as ordinary items made extraordinary by provenance, such as a (probably well-used) drinking glass owned by Benjamin Franklin. Space is set apart for items produced here (Made in Philadelphia) or integral to local culture (Played in Philadelphia).

A current exhibit displays Philadelphia-made silver, among the items a tiny blacksmith’s anvil, made in 1913 as a 75th birthday gift for John Wanamaker, the founder of the city’s, and one of the world’s, first department stores. Nearby is a 1757 gorget (a decorative shield worn at the throat) inscribed with an image of William Penn, one of almost 3,000 items created by Philadelphia silversmith Joseph Richardson for presentation as peace offerings to Native tribes. Charles Evans’s 1818 christening mug is here as well, an example of the miniature silver mugs and flatware that remain traditional gifts to infants from godparents.

Ordinary and extraordinary

Not every little Philadelphian gets a silver spoon, but the Philadelphia History Museum holds thousands of items found in row homes from Moyamensing to the Great Northeast. A recent exhibit featured radios made in Philadelphia and exported around the world, from fine wood consoles the size of giant-screen televisions to their tabletop-sized offspring. Examples can be found in attics, basements, and probably, parlors across the region.

The more recent the era being presented, the more likely visitors are to converse. Total strangers stand before red boxing gloves Joe Frazier wore in the 1970 championship, or a 2008 World Series ring presented to Mayor Michael Nutter, or a yearbook from Northeast High School and can’t help but compare notes: where they were, what they remember, what it all meant.

Older Philadelphians remember the South Seventh Street location as the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia, founded in 1938 by Arthur Atwater Kent, whose firm was the largest manufacturer of radios in the United States in the 1920s. In 1938, Kent founded the museum and located it in the grand stone building, which he purchased and donated to the city. Before the Atwater Kent took up residence, the building was home to the Franklin Institute.

Galleries to the left and right of the front door introduce past and present. To the right, a primer on the last three centuries in Philadelphia, to the left, a changing space devoted to community, currently, the 115-year-old Smith Memorial Playground.

Upstairs, portraits of notables are presented to evoke viewer opinions. Signage encourages them to consider the symbolism of where and how subjects are portrayed. Entitled "Highlights of the Collection": Face to Facebook, the point of which is that if the code is understood, an 18th-century portrait can be as revelatory as a 21st-century posting on social media.

Map yourself

Surprisingly, the most evocative location in the Philadelphia History Museum is an almost empty room: the main gallery, the floor of which consists of the world’s largest map of Philadelphia. Heads down, people wander thoughtfully across old neighborhoods and favorite haunts, places they lived, studied, and worked. They walk from the Delaware to the Schuylkill in few strides, ford Cobbs Creek and the Pennypack, and can almost stand with one foot in Chestnut Hill and the other in the Great Northeast. The map is a magnet of memories, delighting everyone.

Visiting the Philadelphia History Museum is like climbing into the family attic: We don’t just see the past; it’s our past and probably our parents’ and grandparents’ as well. Suddenly, the people whose names adorn streets and institutions don’t seem so remote: They, like us, found themselves in Philadelphia and stayed.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia History Museum, 15 South Seventh Street, Philadelphia. 215-685-4830 or

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