The only museum dedicated to Philadelphia itself details the birth and continuing life of the city via some amazing objects—one of Ben Franklin's toasting glasses, Joe Frazier's boxing gloves, George Washington's presidential pocket watch, an original boundary marker of the Mason-Dixon line, 45s by local hit-makers Chubby Checker and Patti LaBelle, and the very the brass compass used to lay out Philadelphia's streets. Closed for a complete overhaul in 2009, the museum reopened in the fall of 2012 with perhaps the most avant-garde, self-reflective curations of any museum in America.
Though tiny, it is an extremely compelling collection, asking visitors to question the very act of using objects to tell a story in a museum, noting which stories they are used to tell here, and then asking which stories behind a given object are not being told, are hidden, or have been lost or forgotten, and what other stories might be told or inspired by a given object on exhibit.
And those exhibits are breathtakingly interesting and oddly paired as well. George Washington's writing desk is flanked on one side by the 1682 wampum belt given to William Penn by the local Lenape tribe when they first met on the banks of the Delaware, and on the other side by Penn's silver snuff box and shaving bowl.
So far so historical. But next to Penn's antique silverware is a checkerboard Hmong basket woven from found plastic by a Laotian immigrant in the 1980s, which is by a 1990s quinceañera crown, which is below Hanukkah menorahs from the 1920s and 30s, which are near Mike Schmidt's batting helmet, which is across from a slave harness from after 1700, next to a circa-1900 fireman's helmet, just down from a musket used in John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry... and that's just a selection of the objects in one small room. The take-away: Philadelphia's history is richer and more culturally varied than just bewigged forefathers founding our country and the cheesesteaks and "Rocky" dreams of South Philly.
Another room filled with paintings of past Philadelphians begins by asking you to consider the act of portraiture itself, contrasting the expensive, time-consuming oil painting of the 1700s with the ease of a virtually free 21st-century selfie. It then goes on to deconstruct each of the 19 portraits in the room, pointing out what the dress, poses, expressions, settings, and objects pictured in each are telling us, interpreting and translating these 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century painterly forms of communication.
Don't miss the giant, walk-upon floor map detailing Philly’s every natural and man-made nook and cranny.