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

The information age has forced us all to think about information – and how we share it – in new and meaningful ways. We increasingly place a high value on information that possesses relevance to our lives and that we need to solve the problems we are facing at any given moment. History is too often dismissed as irrelevant because it deals with the past, when, in fact, the past is essential to our understanding the present and planning for the future. In audience research for museums and public surveys, people often link the past, present, and future when they are assessing change and making decisions about their lives.

The relevance of history is well documented in the work of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). The Commission staff and programs interact with many people in ways that have extraordinary impact on their lives. I sometimes like to compare PHMC to the folktale of the elephant and the blind men. Each man thought he understood the elephant by touching a single element – from its trunk to its tail-and argued about what kind of animal it really was. Much like the elephant, the PHMC is much, much more than just the sum of its parts.

School children visiting The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg use their abilities to observe and analyze information about their environment, about creativity and art, and about the state in which they Jive. For many, The State Museum is the first museum they visit on school trips and family visits. For some, those visits can change their lives by igniting new interests that last a lifetime. Planetary scientist Heidi B. Hammel is involved in NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope project and is currently studying Neptune. When asked what made her want to become an astronomer, she cited her frequent visits to the planetarium at The State Museum where she became fascinated by a comet streaking across the sky.

Families create memorable experiences when they learn history together in the interactive environments of our historic sites. At Bushy Run Battlefield, children are among the reenactors who camp at the historic site during a popular summer program that portrays how Colonel Henry Bouquet and his troops, on their way to save Fort Pitt under siege, were ambushed and defeated Native American forces in 1763.

Multigenerational family visitors to historic sites such as the Landis Valley Museum or Somerset History Center are given an opportunity to learn about traditional agricultural practices and technology, now replaced through mechanization. Grandfathers and grandmothers share their knowledge and experiences using outdoor sites and special programs with a younger generation that no longer has direct involvement in a once-prevalent Pennsylvania agricultural life style. In the anthracite region, he story of hard coal is told through the experiences of miners and their families at several PHMC museums. At Eckley Miners’ Village, visitors are able to leisurely stroll the patch town’s main thoroughfare whose residents have personal connections to the coal industry that created and sustained the community.

A recent example of the relevance that history can have came to us from a Beaver County couple who serve as missionaries to Uganda from Christ Church at Grove Farm in Sewickley. On visits to PHMC’s Drake Well Museum, at Titusville, Venango County, Graham Hodgetts, an engineer and inventor, was intrigued by the demonstration of a simple spring-pole drilling rig used in early oil drilling. He made the connection that this low-tech approach could benefit settlements in Uganda in need of clean drinking water. Applying nineteenth-century drilling technology from Drake Well to Uganda, Graham and Eileen Hodgetts have helped villagers dig four water wells. More than one hundred are planned for the next few years!

Historic preservation is most successful and most meaningful when it is something that has relevance to the community. The PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation works with individuals and communities to help address the questions and concerns of citizens about their neighborhoods, their towns, their houses, and what they can do to preserve the significant aspects of the places they treasure as part of their heritage. In partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the Bureau for Historic Preservation is looking at preservation of farmland as a key issue for the future of Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy.

History is relevant to researchers who come to the Pennsylvania State Archives seeking information about their ancestors. Family history and genealogy is one of the most rapidly growing hobbies and pastimes for Americans of all backgrounds. With improved access to documents and records through digitization, more and more people are learning about the past and their connections to it. Our task is to not only safeguard the written and tangible evidence of the past, but also to make sure that people continue to use history to make meaning of their lives and the places they live.

Quality of life has been identified as one of the distinguishing characteristics of successful communities. For the Commonwealth to survive and thrive as a place where people live, work and visit, we need to make sure that we are using one of our greatest assets, the rich history and heritage that Pennsylvanians share, to create a future well grounded in the past.

Barbara Franco
Executive Director, PHMC