Executive Director’s Message

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

Since 1987 the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission (PHMC) has assumed the lead role for the commem­oration of this year’s five hun­dredth anniversary of the Columbus voyages. With the assistance of a task force ap­pointed by Gov. Robert P. Casey, which represents the General Assembly of Pennsyl­vania and major historical organizations and cultural institutions throughout the state, we adopted three themes to address the legacy of Christopher Columbus in the Commonwealth.

First, we agreed to support programs and activities that illustrate the experiences of diverse ethnic populations. The initiative to create Penn­sylvania’s Columbus program came, after all, from the Italian-American caucus of the state legislature. With the active support of caucus lead­ership and staff, we committed a large portion of our project budget to telling the stories of the various ethnic groups that sought religious toleration, political freedom, and eco­nomic opportunity by immi­grating to William Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Examples of this theme include a televi­sion series on WPSX-TV of State College devoted to twenty major ethnic groups; an exhibit installed in The State Museum’s Mobile Mu­seum entitled “A Patchwork of Cultures”; and a major exhibi­tion, “The Peopling of Penn­sylvania,” developed in cooperation with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, Philadelphia.

Second, we strove to iden­tify and interpret efforts to memorialize Christopher Co­lumbus in Pennsylvania. Our staff discovered fifteen Colum­bus statues and memorials, and eleven places named in honor of the explorer. A room in the Doylestown house of Henry Chapman Mercer is dedicated to chronicling the saga of the Columbus voyages with distinctive Mercer tiles. The most prominent memorial in Pennsylvania is, of course, the Columbus Chapel in Boals­burg, Centre County, where the PHMC has supported the cataloging of more than two thousand objects and artifacts, as well as an exhibit exploring the unique connection be­tween the Boal and Columbus families.

Finally, we have called attention to the history of Pennsylvania during the per­iod of early European settle­ment. One accomplishment under this theme was the purchase of the important Berry map of North America (1680), the first known map to employ the designation “Penn­sylvania.” Grants to the Penn­sylvania Humanities Council (PHC) and to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) have also supported research, lectures, and publications.

Within this thematic ap­proach, it is important to bet­ter understand the contact between the Native Americans and the Europeans. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Columbus’ accomplish­ments is whether or not he is considered a great explorer or a great exploiter. The conse­quences of European explora­tion and settlement in the New World have not been favorable for native populations. No amount of progress that has occurred during the past five centuries can erase the critical questions concerning human rights, economic injustice, and environmental degradation that is also part of our history.

At a conference held last year on the Columbus com­memoration, one of our speak­ers expressed the hope that 1992 would be a “year of recon­ciliation” among the diverse populations of our continent, and that the observance of the Columbus legacy would shed light (and not heat) upon the contending memories of the past. This spirit of reconcilia­tion should surely be our ob­jective if we are to derive any meaning at all from the study and preservation of our common heritage.

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director