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

This edition of Pennsylvania Heritage pays tribute to The State Museum of Pennsylvania on its centennial. The museum was developed as one of the first comprehensive state museums in the nation. Sylvester K. Stevens (1904-1974), the legendary executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), brought the agency to new, unparalleled levels of professionalism. Under his leadership, The State Museum and the Pennsylvania State Archives became national models with modern buildings and professional management. It’s hard to study the literature of state and local history without finding some reference to his groundbreaking work here in Pennsylvania.

This past summer Pennsylvania lost one of its leading spokespersons for historic preservation with the death of Charles E. Peterson, F.A.I.A. (1906-2004). Peterson’s career is but another example of how Pennsylvanians have long played a leadership role in the preservation of history. It’s no surprise then that as the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission sets its strategic direction for the next few years, the subject of leadership comes up again and again in our discussions and deliberations.

The contributions of Pennsylvanians such as Stevens and Peterson to the field of history continue to provide models and inspiration for our work today. These pioneers have left a legacy that has helped lead the state and the nation to new understandings and interpretations of the past.

Peterson, a National Park Service architect who arrived in Philadelphia in the 1950s, influenced the preservation and interpretation of Independence National Historic Park, dubbed the historic neighborhood Society Hill after the Free Society of Traders to which founder William Penn made liberal concessions of land and privileges, and helped establish the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Thanks to Peterson, visitors to Philadelphia can explore the landscape where founding fathers created the United States and communities in every state have access to plans and drawings of historic buildings, some of which no longer stand. But Peterson is not alone as a national and state leader in preserving the past.

Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) helped found the Museum of Science and Art at the University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), established the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, and constructed the Mercer Museum in 1913 to tell the story of human progress through everyday tools and implements. Mercer was a pioneer in shifting the emphasis of history from great men and events to everyday life and material culture studies.

Frances Dorrance (1877-1973) directed WPA projects in northeastern Pennsylvania as the director of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society (now the Luzerne County Historical Society), headquartered in Wilkes-Barre, and became a proponent for the identification of Native American sites. As a longtime member of the PHMC and its predecessor, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission – Dorrance served under Governors John S. Fisher, Gifford Pinchot, Arthur H. James, Edward Martin, James H. Duff, John S. Fine, and George M. Leader – she led efforts to establish Indian site surveys and laid the groundwork for the rich Native American history that is now preserved and studied in Pennsylvania.

George Korson (1899-1967) was among the first collectors of folklore associated with American industrial history. Working as a reporter for the Pottsville Republican he began collecting coal mining songs and ballads that were published in the United Mine Workers Journal. Today, his original recordings, field notes, correspondence, and papers comprise the George Korson Folklore Archive at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre.

As The State Museum of Pennsylvania enters its second century of service to the citizens of Pennsylvania, we are inspired by the work of these leaders to find new and engaging ways to tell the unfolding story of the Keystone State.

Barbara Franco
Executive Director