From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

To this day I can distinctly remember the palpable excitement I felt as a child going up to the attic with my grandmother to explore all the wonderful old treasures secreted there. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and The State Museum of Pennsylvania have recently initiated a project to rediscover and examine the Commonwealth’s hidden gems that have long been stored away. I believe this too will generate excitement.

For more than two centuries the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has been creating, gathering and accepting records and artifacts related to the Keystone State’s prehistory, history and natural history. The stewardship of most of these tangible Pennsylvania assets is a core responsibility of PHMC.

Today the range and size of our collections is remarkable. The Pennsylvania State Archives safeguards 237 million manuscript pages including the original Charter granted in 1681 by King Charles II to William Penn creating the colony of Pennsylvania, posters advertising the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and postcards celebrating the Pennsylvania Turnpike, touted as “America’s First Super Highway.” The State Museum’s archaeology collections, both prehistoric and historic, contain more than 4.5 million artifacts, carefully boxed, stored and recorded. These two collections are well organized and accessible to the public and to scholars.

PHMC collections also include more than 500,000 historical artifacts and objects as well as natural history specimens. These range from dinosaur tracks to moon rocks, from Conestoga wagons to automobiles and from a chair made of wood from the elm under which William Penn entered into a treaty with the Lenape to a seat that carried a rhesus monkey named Miss Sam to a height of eight miles in a 1960 test of emergency procedures for the nation’s space program. Many of these objects and artifacts were acquired long before professional standards had been created for care and record keeping. Much of the information about these artifacts is recorded only on paper and not available through modern computerized data systems. Today these artifacts are scattered among more than 40 historic sites, museums and storage facilities. As a result we do not have the intellectual control over our collections that is necessary for sound stewardship. In other words, we are not always sure of what we have, exactly where it is, and whether it is important to retain.

In this issue of Pennsylvania Heritage you will read about our Collections Advancement Project which is designed to complete a physical inventory of our history and natural history collections and to enter all of our knowledge about these artifacts into a modern data management system (see “White Glove Service at The State Museum: It’s Not What You Might Think” by Shirley T. Wajda). This will make most of this information available to the public for the first time. During the process we will evaluate each object to determine what it tells us about Pennsylvania, whether it duplicates others in the collection and if we should continue to care for it. If not, we’ll ask whether it should be deaccessioned to make room for new and potentially more significant objects.

Carefully sorting through and evaluating a half-million artifacts and records is an enormous project. It’s comparable to cleaning Pennsylvania’s attic, basement and garage at the same time, but it’s fundamental to our work.

How long will it take? Based on the work of the past year, we estimate that it may take eight to ten years, maybe longer. At the end of the rigorous process we will know much more about the Keystone State’s jewels entrusted to our care – and so will you. And it seems likely we will discover treasures that have been hidden away too long.

James M. Vaughan
Executive Director, PHMC