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July 05, 2023

PAFA exhibit the first to display items from Philly's former history museum

Old photos, paintings and maps from the Atwater Kent Collection, acquired last year by Drexel University, can be seen for free through Sept. 5

Arts & Culture History
Atwater Kent Collection Provided Image/Atwater Kent Collection at Drexel

'Seeing Philadelphia,' an exhibit on display at PAFA, features photos, drawings and maps from the Atwater Kent Collection, which Drexel University acquired in May 2022. Pictured above is Broad and Master streets in 1874.

An exhibit on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts this summer presents birds-eye views and street-level snapshots of the city dating back to the 18th century. 

"Seeing Philadelphia" pairs old photographs, drawings, paintings and maps with more recent photographs and first-person narratives produced by Philly students and longtime residents. The free exhibit is open Thursdays through Sundays until Sept. 5.

The items in the exhibit are from the Atwater Kent Collection, which Drexel University acquired last year from the shuttered Philadelphia History Museum. The collection includes more than 130,000 artifacts, including a desk used by George Washington, a Lenape wampum belt given to William Penn and a fedora that Abraham Lincoln wore to disguise himself as he walked to his inauguration in 1861.

Drexel is still processing the collection. The PAFA exhibit is the first time that items from the collection are on display since the university acquired it. 

The exhibit includes images from a variety of photographs and artists. Many of the street-level sketches were made by Benjamin Ridgway Evans, a 19th century architect and artist who created hundreds of watercolor paintings of Philadelphia street corners and buildings. 

"There are so many ways to 'see' Philadelphia," said Stacey Swigart, director of the Atwater Kent Collection. "From prints, photographs and paintings that showcase the city's evolution — including examples of Benjamin Ridgway Evans' workmanlike drawings of buildings and street corners in the late 19th century — and those same views taken some 60 years later by a photographer employed by the Federal Works Project Administration." 

For the exhibit, a Drexel program asked students from Paul Robeson High School, YouthBuild Philadelphia and the university to collaborate with city residents to document their experiences growing up in Philly. Their stories and photographs are displayed alongside historic images of Center City, 30th Street Station, North Philly, University City, West Philly and Graffiti Pier. 

The Atwater Kent Collection was housed at the Philadelphia History Museum, at Seventh and Sansom streets, until its closure in 2018. The transfer of the collection from the city to Drexel in May 2022 drew criticism from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and others, because Drexel was not going to reopen the museum but instead maintain the collection and make its pieces available on loan. 

After the Philadelphia Orphans' Court authorized the transfer, Drexel President John Fry said the university would work with cultural institutions to ensure that pieces from the collection would be shared widely. 

"Seeing Philadelphia" is on display at PAFA's Frances M. Maguire Gallery, located in the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building at 128 N. Broad St. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The items in the exhibit also are available to be viewed online.

This is the first of several upcoming exhibits to showcase pieces from the Atwater Kent Collection. Drexel is set to open a larger exhibit focused on the city's diversity in 2024, WHYY reported.