Fun with Hyphenated-Americans; The ethnic heritage museums of Philadelphia.Posted: October 6, 2013
Philadelphia is a city of Museums. The subjects vary from the obvious war of independence places of interest to colonial history, as well as Art and science museums with a really cool medical interest menagerie and a crumbling jail thrown in for good measure. General museums (places based around learning about dead W.A.S.P.s) are definitely interesting and if you have a week or so to kill (and the money to spend). I would recommend floating easily around the Center of America’s first capitol enjoying America’s hallowed sights.
If however you are overly familiar or uninterested in dead white men, Philadelphia has you covered; my new hometown has – at least – three museums dedicated to specific ethnicities that have passed through and helped build it. I find these museums novel because “Heritage” is a big thing in America in a way I’ve never experienced in the UK. I’m not saying the British are blind to ethnic differences at all, but I remember people’s backgrounds at school being as fascinating being double jointed or the ability to spit really far: it was cool if you were half Jamaican and half Irish, but that wasn’t really part of your Identity in the grand scheme of things. Contrast this with America where most people can tell you the old world province their great grandparents left to build some form of Victorian infrastructure. The three museums below are all created and maintained by members of the community they document and as a result offer an interesting insight into that community and its place in modern day America.
The A.A.M.P. is the smallest of the three museums at 4 stories of which only two are reserved for regular exhibits. It’s also the ugliest, – It was built in 1976 and looks it – and least well placed museum I think I’ve ever seen. Firstly, it’s more out of the way than a teaching space about something as fundamental as the history of black people in America’s first capitol should be. It is also across the street from Philadelphia’s Federal prison. I’m not sure which one was built first but considering the disparity in incarceration rates between African Americans and other groups, but whoever decided to build the second one next to the first is either kind of unthinking, or very, very dickish. The museum makes up for its size by being very audio visual; the first floor’s main attraction is a pretty cool, comprehensive history of African Americans in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania told through static visuals, lights and voice overs. Philadelphia was somewhat of a hub for abolitionism and civil rights as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was one of the rare states in the union that both banned slavery and allowed black people to live there.
Despite the lack of space, the sheer amount of information is impressive and definitely worth spending an afternoon in. The second floor is where I stop taking the museum wholly seriously; I have a long standing bias against historical reeanactor dating back to being disappointed by a ‘medieval pilgrim’ who showed me some ‘bones of a saint’. My eight year old face widened with wonder as I asked him if they were real; this wonder left me when he broke character, laughed and told me that they were real chicken bones. The A.A.M.P. spares me the awkwardness of interacting with live people pretending to be from the eighteenth and ninetieth centuries, opting instead to litter the second floor with large stand alone screens that show you various notable African Americans from Philadelphia’s history who answer specific questions you can ask by pressing buttons. The screen’s downtime shows the actors interacting with the room; this involves them pacing around the screen, nodding at theoretical passers by, and, in the case of two Methodists priests, sharing a joke about someone in the room with each other before catching themselves and looking stoic again. This is probably supposed to make the screens more approachable and the gallery as a whole, warmer; it instead makes the museum feel like a sorting house for the paintings Hogwarts deemed too unnerving to expose its pupils to. The last top two floors are subject to a rolling exhibit which when I was there focused on The Supremes and their impact on society with a particular focus on their fashion. This was kind of interesting as it puts the band into the context of the Civil Rights era they became famous in, but not being interested much in fashion and only mildly diverted by 1960s R&B, i’m not super qualified to pass judgment on whether that particular traveling exhibition is good or not. Sadly, the gift shop is not much to write home about, taking up about a quarter of the lobby and selling very little variety, mainly prints of famous African Americans and – weirdly – tribal masks. The shop also doesn’t sell pencils; something I was raised by my father to collect from every museum as a compact souvenir that every museum should have.
Overall I really like the A.A.M.P, and despite the gift shop, my only real criticism is its lack of space to display the apparent thousands of artifacts and papers kept in it’s vaults. However the only real way to overcome this problem is for more people to go and give them money to expand. So do that. It’s $14.00 to get in and well worth it.
My partner and I came across this museum by accident; we had been invited to enjoy the sunset at FDR park last March and enjoyed the Versailles-esque building sitting in deepest darkest South Philly. However, we only actually went inside when the museum had a free entry day through the Smithsonian. For those of who are unfamiliar with the Nordic people’s contribution to this particular part of the world, the Swedish built trading posts on the west coast of the Delaware river on the present day sights of Wilmington DE, and Center city Philadelphia. They did this in the hopes of establishing a permanent colony like New Amsterdam to the North of them and Virginia to the South, but lack of resources and rival colonists eventually lead the Swedes to abandon Philadelphia within 30 years of founding the place. There is a more extensive Swedish American museum in Chicago which is around where most Scandinavians emigrated to during the late 1800s.
This museum differs from its Midwestern counterpart by focusing the majority of its energy on a very specific time and place: that being the rise and fall of New Sweden. The Museum doesn’t start off promisingly. The first exhibition actually has nothing to do with North America and was a travelling exhibition about a (non-native) Swedish designer – I forget which one – and his various designs across the middle of the twentieth century. The museum has its high point with the so called ‘Golden Map Room,’ which shows the Swedish empire at the dawn of the kingdom’s colonial ambitions wrapped around a room in gilt paint. This is a very ornate map created specifically for the museum by Swedish artists at the museum’s inception at the end of the 1920s and is worth at least an hour’s study for all the detail shown, from the presence of pro danish partisans in the south to Sápmi campsites to the north. The room also provides some nice insights into life in renaissance Sweden by showing swords, cannonballs and books from the era the map depicts. The map room leads onto an informative, brief history of New Sweden and the Swedes who remained in Philadelphia when William Penn took over. This is interesting enough if, like me, you find non-English speaking colonization of north America intriguing or you’re of Swedish decent, something I suspect at least 90% everyone else who visits this museum is, given the fact that I saw at least three separate groups of people moving from American accented English to equally American accented Swedish.
The rest of the museum is a mix of individual rooms dedicated to specific Swedes who contributed to American history and Swedish Design; the most fun individual Swede room is dedicated to John Ericsson, which is designed to look like the inside of an Art-Deco Ocean Liner and contains a large painting showing Ericsson convincing Abraham Lincoln to use Ironclads. The Swedish design rooms are quite Ikea heavy as the museum unsurprisingly revives a large from that particular Swedish company. Another room in the corner of the Museum is dedicated to the Nobel prize; since this has actually nothing to do with the Swedish American experience this feels more like filler than a relevant part of a heritage museum. The room brings up images of curators deciding that placing filling two walls with pictures of Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway will make up for the lack of stuff they have to show.
My lasting impression of this museum however is very much colored by the glaring fact of the Lobby’s ceiling. The ceiling is painted with a very elaborate mural depicting incredibly blond colonialists shaking hands with smiling, befeathered Native Americans in an idyllic and falsified scene entitled;
“The Swedes bring Civilization to the Delaware Valley”.
I could excuse this painting if it came with any disclaimer that was painted in 1927 and clearly the attitudes at the time were a lot less willing to cast the native population of North America as anything other than savages – noble or otherwise. However, the Museum does nothing to account for the fact that this painting is nearly ninety years old. I can’t imagine a museum keeping a wall painting showing contented slaves under benevolent masters no matter how old or well painted it was and if it was it wouldn’t be shown without at least a long disclaimer distancing the institution from the sentiment of the subject. For the American Swedish Historical museum to have not done that with this painting makes it feels like the Institution is comfortable with describing pre-Colombian Americans as fundamentally uncivilized, and lucky that white people came to liberate them with smallpox and property deeds. The gift shop doesn’t help this vibe as the most prominent display pieces for sale are two fake parking signs for Swedes and Finns only. I’m assuming the curators thought these signs would be cute but placed next to each other the signs look like the museum is encouraging me to reintroduce segregation. There were however pencils for sale even if they only said “Sweden” on them in Swedish.
I managed to visit this museum for free as part of a promotion and honestly I’m glad I did because the cool parts of this museum are overshadowed by the tedious parts, If you have a chance to get in for free or extremely cheep, the building, along with it’s lovely settings in FDR park, is worth spending a Saturday afternoon wondering around, but don’t go out of your way unless you have a burning desire to learn about the hardships of living in New Sweden.
The National Museum of Jewish History sits – as a nice marker of how far western society has come regarding antisemitism – in prime position on Independence Mall looming over the building where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and signed. I’ve mentioned the location of this museum to a lot of people who have been shocked that it’s there; this is probably because the building is quite hard to see. It’s not built to be hidden; It’s a large shiny building, it is however, a large shiny building in the center of Philadelphia, making it one among many. This is not to say it’s a bad looking building; the five story Glass facade facing independence Mall is pretty cool would be easy to confuse with a tech company’s Philadelphia office if you aren’t paying to much attention.
I visited the museum with my partner in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which meant we where greeted with a table of unleavened bread and grape juice, always a plus. You also get a paper wristband to show you’ve paid to get in; as a hairy person I have a general bias against, though if you like your museum visits to feel like a music festival or cheap amusement park, this is the ticket system for you. The staff recommend you take the lift to the top of the building and walk your way back down. The fifth floor is for temporary exhibits and when I went it was showing the artwork of a children’s author I have never heard of so I really can’t comment if it was worth a look, but I’m sure by now it’s probably something really cool that I would be interested in so I won’t hold that against the museum.
The general tone of the exhibits comes across as “American History! Did you know Jews where there, too?”. The museum is broken down into three time periods; 1645 – 1880 (Jews where totally involved in Colonial America, the Revolution, going west AND the Civil war!), 1880-1945 (Guess who also Immigrated to America and assimilated into mainstream society? Jews!) 1945 – present (The economic and social changes that rippled from the end of the second world war also happened to Jews!). An enduring theme of the exhibits is the number of Jewish people relative to the Gentile population of any given time or social movement; there where around 2,000 Jewish people in colonial America in 1776, about half of which Joined the revolution, about 10% of the immigrants coming through Ellis Island were Jewish, etc etc. This is not to downplay this museum as it is well worth visiting and the content is genuinely interesting and well presented. There are nooks all over the exhibit dedicated to individuals from Judah P. Benjamin to Emma Goldman as well as impressive audio visual presentations showing – among other things – the migration of Jews across the west and the integration of Jewish Actors into Hollywood.
The museum is also attempting to create a broad personal story of Jewish Americans, providing a booth, inviting people to tell their family histories, which various Jewish holidays means the most to them and why, and how they feel about being Jewish in the Twenty-first century. The one glaring problematic part of this museum is its treatment of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, which begins at the entrance wall showing the history of Jewish people by Geography showing Jewish history ending in 1948 with what the museum refers to as “The Israeli deceleration of Independence” and then stops, sort of implying that everything was fine afterwards. Later on during the third section of the museum in which the phrase “A land without a people for a people without a land” is repeated numerous times as though that sentence isn’t one designed to write off and ignore the people who lived and live in the areas currently administered by the Israeli state. My partner did point out that if I wanted an objective take on the Israeli/Palestine conflict, I should not have looked to the Jewish American museum, not so much that the perspective was Jewish, but that it was American. Still, it left an unpleasant taste.
The gift shop was expansive, selling everything from Torah pointers with every conceivable design to Jewish specific Apples to Apples to small plastic Shofars for kids. The pencil I bought was the best of the three as not only did it have the name of the museum on it, but also the logo.
The National Museum of Jewish History sort of outclasses the other two; it’s affiliated with the Smithsonian, and is the premier Jewish Museum for America so it would be unfair to call this the best one as it has much more resources, but it is certainly the most time consuming of the three museums – in a good way. It’s also a very awesome resource for anyone who wants to find out about the evolution of modern America through the Jewish experience.
All in all these are an interesting trio of museums; valuable not just for the narratives they tell, but for what they say about the people telling those narratives. So, yeah, diverse cultural capital!