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October 05, 2023

Inside the Archives spotlights items at Philly museums that you won't typically find on display

Local institutions opened their vaults — just a bit — to PhillyVoice, sharing unique relics and artifacts and talking about their historical and cultural significance

Arts & Culture Museums
Inside the Archives museum series Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The Penn Museum, pictured above, is among several Philadelphia institutions featured in PhillyVoice's Inside the Archives series.

Stepping into a museum can be a slightly disorienting experience, especially when you're staring down the map for the first time. 

Turn left for an evolution of American reptilia, including an extensive collection of scales and tortoise shells and an interactive sound booth that mimics different snake hisses. Turn right for an exploration of an art movement, from its beginning in a 17th century Italian village up to its current postmodern, avant garde iteration popular in abandoned warehouses. Take the stairs to the relics of an entire civilization that disappeared centuries ago. Or walk straight ahead for the cafe and gift shop.

In a way, that's the beauty of these cultural hubs: their sheer volume invites you to return and keep exploring, learning a new piece of information with each visit. But those brightly-lit display cases lining every nook and cranny? They only scratch the surface.

To better tell the stories of Philadelphia's museums and the cultural artifacts in their collections, PhillyVoice is embarking on a series called Inside the Archives. Each installment will take you into the collection of a different museum and focus on a unique piece that's not currently on display. Curators will explain why this curiosity matters, and how it fits into the wider history of the museum and the world.

The series starts with explorations of ancient Sumerian tablets, forgotten '60s toys and the "furious lesbian" writer who dated Old Hollywood stars. Return to this hub for all future installments of "Inside the Archives," and let us know if there's a museum you'd like to see featured in the comments or by sending us an email.

This will be an ongoing series. Here are links to the articles published so far:

Mr. Potato Head's forgotten friends from the 1960s live in Philly at the Please Touch Museum

Story of a pioneering queer writer's audacious love life is preserved in the Rosenbach collection

This 5,000-year-old stone tablet at the Penn Museum is among the oldest examples of writing in the world

The iron lung seems archaic, but a smaller version — like the one at Mütter Museum — helped people, even recently
• Why do so many museums have locks of George Washington's hair?

• Steamer trunk at the Weitzman Museum tells the story of Jewish displacement after World War II
• Before Eastern State Penitentiary closed, music by the prison's inmate band delighted radio audiences
A lantern at the Fireman's Hall Museum is a relic from when being a firefighter was even more dangerous
Isaiah Zagar, known for his mosaics, also has collaborated on delicate works made of grass and beeswax

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