Reconstructing a Shadow

Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?

 Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.

 Walden, Henry D. Thoreau, Sounds


1802 Plan of Philadelphia, Charles Varle, Atwater Kent Museum

During the lunch break at a museum conference in Philadelphia (MAAM), I bolted outside into the bright sunshine.  The only thing on my mind was where could I get a good cheesesteak.  After grabbing lunch, I set out to quickly re-visit some of my favorite Philadelphia house museums.  I visited The Stedman-Powel House, The Physick House, The Graff House, Franklin Court, and the President’s House.  DISCLAIMER: Even though I had previously visited these sites (even worked in some), the speed of my visits kept my experiences at a high level.   I saw them in an entirely new way.  These quick visitations produced an unexpected series of connections, such that, I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge being flown around by ghosts of Christmas past/present/and future. I wasn’t able to gain the granular perspective, but rather I was able to fly above and see these sites at a distance – removed from my professional eye.

Without even trying, because of the brevity of my visits, I was being given a high-level history of, The history ofhistoric house museums.  More specifically, I was able to see and experience the full spectrum of how we, as a nation, have manifested and negotiated loss and politics, through the act of preserving the domestic realm.

Let me detail my stroll:


My first stop was the 1932 restoration of the 1756 Stedman- Powel House.  Once considered the finest townhome in Philadelphia, it later became a store house for horse and boar hair (to be used in the making of hair brushes), and one of the earliest house museums in the city.  First restored in a period of heavy immigration debate and strong opposing national opinions on Jewish refugee immigration, the house feels like a “stake in the ground” for American ideals and nationalism.  Although the finest room’s (Ballroom & Withdrawing Room) cosmetic surfaces have been removed and installed in major art museums, much of the house has been re-fabricated, re-engineered, and conjecturally restored.  With its plain wood floors, and slightly worn cosmetics, it holds a great deal of tangible and compelling qualities to its presentation.


Hill-Physick-Keith-House  635775759779682500-Physick04

Next, I stopped in my old office of The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, which is housed in the late 1960’s restoration of the 1786 Hill-Keith Physick House.  Unusual in that it is a free standing house among attached townhomes, the exterior structure appears much as it did when it was first built.  The romanticized “Society Hill” urban renewal movement (today we would call it gentrification) was in full force at this time and some of the most established Philadelphia families moved into the district in an effort to prop-up considerable city investment.  The original intent of the restoration by the Annenbergs was to use the site as “The Center for Media”, and as such, the interior is almost entirely re-surfaced and renovated, feeling like a very well-appointed pseudo-public venue.  This had the effect of producing a historic house museum which has a feeling of being oddly perfect and beautiful, yet inappropriately so for its age. The narrative of Dr. Physick is important and compelling, yet, today I left feeling as if his legacy was overshadowed by an interior that felt too precious and affected.


graff_house1  Declaration House Inside

After leaving the Physick House, I walked a bit farther and I recognized the 1975 reconstruction of the 1775 Graff House (Declaration House). The practice of cherry-picking seemingly important colonial sites resulted in this building being erected for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia. As many of these types of historic sites, this house museum feels like a caricature of an important house museum.  A complete reconstruction, the house has that accurate, austere vacant feeling of a National Park Service site that fulfilled all of the Department of Interior’s Standards for Preservation, yet has no soul. It appears, both literally and figuratively, to be a bookend – It feels like a weighty mass whose purpose was to solidify the importance of Philadelphia during colonial America, not to convey anything new or intimate about Thomas Jefferson or the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  The site has suffered with problems of attendance and is infrequently open.  The presentation of the historic period and the narrative is a “stand and listen” experience, while the decorated period room exists as a static backdrop.


franklin court

As I returned to the conference venue, I walked into the 1976 Franklin Court design by Venturi, Rauch, and Scott-Brown Architects of the 1763 Benjamin Franklin Residence. Long regarded as the high point of progressive historic house & site interpretation (keep an eye on the Menokin Historic House site (Warsaw, Virginia)  as this “restoration” will kick the historic house museum world up a notch), The Franklin Court remains fresh and current even after 40 years – A excellent NPS leadership project . The site architecture and interpretation manifests a uniquely open-ended view of history.  There is a sense of poetics about how the house is “restored” and, at least originally, the underground museum rocketed the visitor into an immersive boundary-breaking experience.  Recently the NPS renovated the underground exhibition spaces. In opposition to Venturi’s “archaeological & technological submersion” experience, the visitor enters through a “Banana Republic-like” commercial glass box.  I want to go back and experience the changes more fully before I comment on the physical and interpretive changes.

PHSaerialviewbyElliott688  img_4366

As I walked on Market Street, I noticed the 2010 President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation. After just leaving the iconic Franklin Court, I was startled by the diagrammatic attempt to mimic its progenitor.   The design of this house museum site is deeply rooted in the need to expand the traditional narrative beyond simply the famous, important men, and move in the direction of valuing a wider narrative inclusive of people of color, marginalized populations, women, and undocumented historic figures.  All important and needed, yet the use of technology is clunky and the slavery-inspired narrative doesn’t seem to go far enough in presenting the duplicitous political views of the founding fathers. In fact, I walked away more confused as to the fundamental meaning of the site.


After my run-about, I returned to the conference and was surprised by how much trouble and effort I was having in producing a unified and cohesive understanding of all of the disparate historic house museum sites.  What about these sites seemed to act like an opposing magnet – repelling the others in an attempt to maximize its own value and space in history?   They all shared the same reality – they were domestic dwellings, all within a roughly similar historic period, and all within walking distance of each other – but, to me at least – they might as well be on different parts of the world. Why?

Patricia West, in Domesticating History, demands us to take note of her thesis – that is that historic house museums have always been and will remain political.  Their very existence as cultural venues have more to say about the period in which the site was “restored”, than it has to say about the actual historic period.  I think my lunch-time stroll supports this.  These historic sites are really expressive of the “fashion” of a particular type and methodology of preservation. It occurs to me that the choices involved in preservation involve a lot of subjective attention, and political bias.

When we Preserve something, are we addressing the need to remember an object? A legacy? An identity?  The process of preservation involves a myriad of both conceptual as well as tangible design choices and actions – how do these choices and actions reflect our own identities and existential relationship with the process of time? How do these choices affect the experience and interpretation of historic sites?  My stroll left me with more questions than answers.

Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

5 thoughts on “Reconstructing a Shadow

  1. As someone outside of the HHM field but somewhat close as a museum studies person, I find myself conceptually busting open just what I understand an HH to be while reading the AGHHM. Thanks for sharing your version of a stroll through a place where I have visited several times the past two years (my husband is now there/I’m on the west coast). It is fascinating how this Philadelphia area has this through-line of shifts in interpretive styles and house approaches, thanks for writing up your stroll of it. I need to go back now that I have a new lens to view these places.

    What I wish is that we could conduct many more studies so that we have much more data to reveal visitor responses to these varied styles. I recall that when I was at the President’s House, I sat and watched visitors stop look and listen to the media then overheard talk about slavery, so there were those paying attention to the message. I also think our national conversation on slavery is being vastly reconsidered even as I write this (at least it is more heightened and in the news media and other channels). No doubt NPS will need to update this piece sooner than later.


  2. It might be useful for your readers to know that the Powel House and Physick House are two of four houses owned and/or operated by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks ( Something that we have been working on in our narratives is to present the houses “through time” as opposed to the single traditional (expected) time period. While this approach is not yet “visible” when you walk through, we are now providing expanded narratives through self-guided tours at Powel. (In process.) We will be looking to Physick House next to start a similar process and are also thinking through returning to the official Hill/Physick/Keith House name. Both houses have important stories to tell in context with the history of Society Hill and Philadelphia as a whole…AND their influence on why the neighborhood looks as it does today. We are also looking at our four houses in a much more global way. What are the histories they have in common? What families do they have in common? And with what institutions do we share important histories? Philadelphia’s historic institutions are tied together in important ways…we are a particular location, that joins with an object at another, and a manuscript in a third location. The order that you present these historic sites is compelling as you show the history of house preservation. Yes! Each is a product of the time period in which they were “saved”…and that is very useful to acknowledge. Let’s give museum goers the tools to look at our houses in this specific way: As a political ideal. Let’s provide the information to help them understand who was making these preservation decisions, their intentions, and in what context they were made.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not a trained professional but I do live here and my work takes me to the corner of Sixth and Market on occasion. It’s striking to me how often young people of color start to walk by the site on their way to someplace else, get caught by the moving images of people of color on the clunky technology, and gravitate to the site. And stay until they’ve seen all the videos. And read the signage. I call that a win.


    • Thanks for your comment – I agree if that is your experience, then great! I however, sat there for a while. There was much diversity on the sidewalk – and almost none in the site itself. In fact, I noticed a series of diverse younger people walking by and looking into the structure and walking right past. In terms of the content of the videos – I found the narrative very glossed over – but of course – those are just my own thoughts. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!


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