Posted October 27, 2009

Germantown’s treasures

It's a problem that has dogged Philadelphia's Germantown section for decades: traveling by in their cars, precious few tourists take time to stop and admire the 18th-century mansions and historic landmarks that dot this mixed urban landscape.

Why? To answer that question and more, two Temple professors took their American Studies classes on the road. In what was billed as a “windshield tour” of Germantown, 25 students viewed nine historic sites from the windows of their bus. According to Seth Bruggeman, assistant professor of history and director of Temple’s Public History Program, the two-hour tour was meant to impress upon the students the sheer size and scope of the challenges faced by house museums in this part of the city — in particular their distance from Center City Philadelphia’s historic district.

Bruggeman and Ken Finkel, distinguished lecturer in American Studies at Temple and former executive director of arts and culture at WHYY public broadcasting, led the mobile discussion.

Bruggeman’s “Museums and America’s Past” and Finkel’s “The Future of Philadelphia’s Past” courses are offered concurrently and convene several times during the semester to visit different locations in Germantown. During these site visits, the students explore the way the past gets represented and the relationship between historic institutions and their communities. The courses complement a larger Temple initiative to turn Philadelphia into a learning laboratory.

Departing from Temple’s center city campus, the students travelled north into the heart of Germantown, where muskets fired from house windows during the Battle of Germantown in 1777.

By the late 19th century, Germantown was a booming industrial town, but during the second half of the 20th century many of the area’s most affluent citizens moved to the suburbs. Today, Germantown is an urban neighborhood on the rebound, with a myriad of historic sites in various states of preservation. “None are as well-known as they might be,” Finkel said.

“Cumulatively, Historic Germantown is one of the richest geographic concentrations of historic resources in the United States. I have never seen anything else like it — a place where history, memory and everyday life exist side by side,” said Bruggeman.

During the tour, the students participated in real-time data collection regarding visitor reaction via Twitter.
“We’re answering questions like ‘would you visit this site with your parents?’ ‘With a date?’ — questions which point to how accessible these sites are to a 22-year-old college student,” said Joe Dill, a senior Film and Media Arts major who took the class to learn about Philadelphia beyond the Liberty Bell.

The idea was to force students to quickly respond to a set of questions and give their candid impressions, explained Bruggeman. “One of the hardest things in a museum’s life is to figure out what people think about the museum, especially the elusive young person.”

After the students have analyzed the data, they will present the results to the sites for their use. “This is something a museum would typically pay thousands of dollars for,” Bruggeman said.

“The tour definitely shows us how important curb-appeal is — how important the first impression is for getting people off the street,” said Steven Greenstein, a master’s student studying public history.

Curb appeal is just one of the many everyday problems and challenges faced not only by the consortium of museums and sites around Germantown but also by historic sites around the country, according to Finkel.

“How do you go about engaging with the public? How can you create connections between the sites and the community? How do you remain relevant?  Answering these questions helps Temple students better appreciate the knotty relationship between the past and the present, history and representation, culture and everyday life,” he said.

The two courses are preparing students to deal with this kind of historical complexity in future positions as archivists, curators, park managers and policy makers. For their final projects, the students are charged with developing interpretive plans for several of Germantown’s historic sites that will promote engagement with the public.

“I think the bus trip has been fun. I wish we had time to get out and look at things things, but I understand the point is driving by like a tourist would,” said Megan Hess, an anthropology major who wants to do museum work when she graduates.

“It’s difficult because we go by so quickly and I am not able to think about it enough — but I guess that’s the point.”