Philadelphia Museum Is Hopeful For State Funds
By Herb Kaufman
(June 2009 Civil War News)
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Despite the governor’s refusal to release $15 million in state funds promised for a new facility, officials of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia are hopeful that they eventually will have a new home. However, it won’t be the one they planned for over the past six years, as that building is no longer available.
The most recent efforts to revive the struggling museum, known for many years as Civil War Library and Museum, and keep its collection in Philadelphia began in 2002.
As the result of efforts by state politicians and Philadelphia’s historic and civic community, an agreement was reached by October 2002 that established a new board of directors who would take over ownership and management of the collection.
The new board changed the name of the museum to the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum. Its initial effort to raise capital was to sell the building housing the museum, which would then continue to operate at that location under a five-year lease.
In addition, State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and State Rep. James Roebuck were “committed to obtaining the funds necessary for creation of a new museum and for the continued operation of the current museum at 18th and Pine until a new facility is ready.” They secured a state capital budget appropriation of $15 million.
Over the next five years the museum obtained a number of planning grants and began to develop a business plan and design a new museum in the historic First Bank of the United States at 3rd and Walnut Streets adjacent to the Independence National Historic Park.
When the lease on its old building expired last summer, the museum was forced to close and place its singular collection of artifacts and relics in a secure storage facility.
Both Harris Baum Esq., Chairman of the Board of Directors, and Sharon Smith, President and CEO of the new Civil War Museum of Philadelphia,continued to meet with representatives of Governor Edward G. Rendell in efforts to finally secure release of the promised capital development funds.
However, a spokesman for the governor said that the state “has limited funds available” and that the governor “cannot fund every project.”
Museum officers were advised that the capital funds for creation of the new museum would not be released. The governor’s office suggested that museum officers meet with representatives of the legislative caucuses with the aim of gaining their support for releasing the $15 million.
With the failure to get the state funds, the National Park Service was forced to begin planning an alternative use for the First Bank building, leaving the museum without a location in which to place its collection.
In a May 13 interview, President and CEO Smith said that obtaining the previously promised capital funds “was not a closed question.”
She and members of the museum’s board are meeting with each of the legislative caucuses and “actively working with the caucuses to seek the release of the capital funding.”
In the interim, the museum has employed a consultant to find an alternative location in the historic district of Philadelphia. Smith said there are a number of interesting potential sites that could be developed into a new museum.
At the same time the museum is maintaining an active role in the historic community. While the museum’s extensive collection will be kept intact, Smith said partnerships with other historic organizations are being explored for display of appropriate items from the vast collection.
The museum is also designing a possible traveling exhibit to allow the public to view a selection of artifacts and relics.
Museum Curator Andrew Coldren is serving as curator of July’s Lincoln 200 Exhibition to be held in Philadelphia. A number of Lincoln artifacts from the museum’s collection will be displayed during this event.
The Civil War Museum continues to offer an extensive number of educational programs and speakers as a part of its “Museum Without Walls” concept. Museum staff and associates present a variety of programs to schools, educational institutions and community groups.
Representatives of numerous historic and community groups have contacted the governor, imploring him to support the original commitment for the release of the capital funds.
Smith is optimistic that an accommodation can be reached through the state legislature that would allow the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia to assume its place as a major component of historic Philadelphia.
The Museum’s Roots
The museum’s history in the city began on May 24, 1888, when three officers from Philadelphia, Col. H. Ernest Goodman, M.D., Bvt. Lt. Col. John P. Nicholson and Bvt. Brig. Gen. Lewis Merrill signed a charter as founders of The War Library and Museum of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS).
Thus, the “War Library,” as it came to be known, was created as the first and oldest museum of Civil War artifacts and memorabilia in the United States.
Over the ensuing years, MOLLUS members continued to acquire hundreds of artifacts, relics and reminiscences of the war. As the numbers of objects continued to grow, MOLLUS moved the museum to several different locations within the city.
In 1922 they purchased a four-story townhouse in the Rittenhouse Square section at 1805 Pine St. This became the War Library’s home for the next 86 years.
Museum visitors were able to see the saddle Gen. John F. Reynolds was riding when he was killed at Gettysburg, an original pike from John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, U.S. Grant’s letter demanding the unconditional surrender of Confederate forces at Fort Donelson, a life mask of President Lincoln, and a remarkable collection of escutcheons, uniforms, paintings and relics.
By the 1970s MOLLUS members were less directly involved in the museum’s operation. A new Board of Governors changed the museum name to Civil War Library and Museum. However, attendance and funding for operations continued to falter.
By the late 1990s the board initiated discussions to close the museum and move the collection to a new proposed museum in Richmond.
The prospect of the artifacts leaving Philadelphia caused a firestorm of outrage both within the city and the state. As reported in Civil War News in April 2002, then Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher filed papers with the court “calling for removal of the board and its replacement by a court-appointed receiver.”
Attorney General Fisher stated that “the board members had ‘breached their fiduciary duty’ to preserve and exhibit the collection.”
That led to the 2002 resurgence in interest in the museum cited earlier.
For additional information, CEO Smith can be contacted at the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, 2301 Market St., MS N1-1, Philadelphia, PA 19103, (215-405-8719).
Herb Kaufman was a docent and Education Associate for the museum from 1992 through 2008.