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

“How tall is the statue?”

It’s a question visitors repeatedly ask guides and guards as they enter The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Memorial Hall and encounter Janet de Coux’s towering bronze casting of a young William Penn (1644-1718) clasping a diminutive figure in his left hand. Museum staffers explain that the statue stands nearly eighteen feet high and weighs nearly two tons. The small figure, they tell visitors, represents Humanity, protected by the ideals of the Common­wealth’s founder and first governor.

Providing the measurements of the statue is easy, but defining the meaning and interpreting the significance of William Penn’s life and legacy have proven to be quite challenging. Historians who examine his Writings and his actions cannot easily reconcile the contradictions and the complexities. How could Penn, a Quaker, promote religious toleration and yet own slaves? Was he a brilliant political thinker, or was he immersed in petty power struggles with legislative rivals in the new colony?

Regardless of the outcome of these inquiries and debates, there is no doubt that William Penn was an important figure in his own day and that today we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in him and in the extraordinary changes that took place during his lifetime. The three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth last year was marked by an extensive schedule of public programs that both honored and critically exam­ined Penn and the political, economic, and social context in which he worked (see “Explaining William Penn on the 350th Anniversary of His Birth: An Interview with Richard S. Dunn” by William C. Kashatus III, and “Pennsbury Manor, The Philosopher’s Garden” by Patricia L. Hudson, both in the fall 1994 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage).

William Penn’s place in our history is secure and his role in shaping our identity as a state is firmly established. It is no accident that Governor and Mrs. Tom Ridge chose to display paintings and prints depicting Penn’s Treaty with the Indians as their first exhibit at the Governor’s Residence. Assembled by Philadelphia collectors Meyer and Vivian Potamkin, this collection of Penn images illustrates the international impact and import of Penn’s life. An expanded exhibit, featuring several dozen pieces drawn from the Potamkin collection, will be on view at The State Museum of Pennsylvania next year. The collection of works of art and objects portraying William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians as a symbol of peace will be donated by the Potamkins to the Commonwealth.

As we continue to celebrate Penn’s contributions, we also accept the respon­sibility to provide a more accurate interpretation for contemporary audi­ences. At Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County; for example, we are offering visitors a more comprehensive view of the life and times of William Penn. Taking advantage of recent advances in the scholarship of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, we are able to explore the influence of women and various ethnic groups in the daily life of Penn’s country estate. As part of this process, we are emphasizing the adapta­tions Penn, his family, and his workers made to conditions in the new world.

By raising new questions about the myths and realities of William Penn, we hope to expand our understanding of one of history’s pivotal figures and gain renewed appreciation for the accom­plishments of that towering presence we encounter in Memorial Hall.

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director