Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Three-quarters of a century ago, it proba­bly surprised no one that the first act of the Pennsylvania Historical Com­mission, not long after its creation in 1913, was to survey all monuments and memorials in the Commonwealth’s sixty­-seven counties. At that time it was universally assumed that public history involved com­memoration and the rituals associated with recognizing significant events and individ­uals.

Nor was it surprising that the majority of the nearly three hundred markers identified during this survey addressed themes of military and political history. For most Americans, history was perceived as the exclusive province of excep­tional individuals and the realm of extraordinary events. Furthermore, American his­tory was told through the eyes of a dominant culture which had conquered natural barriers and foreign enemies. A typical memorial of this period evi­dencing such early twentieth century thought still stands at the Fort Pitt Museum in Pitts­burgh’s Point State Park. Erected in 1930 by the Daugh­ters of the American Revolu­tion (DAR), the marker commemorates the triumph of Gen. John Forbes over the French and Indians in 1758, a victory that “determined the destiny of the Great West and established Anglo-Saxon su­premacy in the United States.”

As a state agency, the early Commission showed particular sensitivity to – if not an attempt at the deification of­ – significant individuals, as well as events, that advanced the interests of the Common­wealth – military regiments, generals and governors. Throughout most of its history, however, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission has expanded its vi­sion of Pennsylvania history, as well as the definition of itself as a public history agency. The Commission has emerged partly as a reflection of national trends in the public history movement, and partly as a result of innovative, and at times controversial, leadership by key staff members and commissioners. Whatever the reasons, the Commission has moved from a narrow, almost exclusive historical perspective to one of broad, all­-encompassing inclusion, mir­roring the widening interests of the history profession.

One pivotal individual who inspired the early Commission to reach beyond the purely commemorative and ethnocen­tric impulse that pervaded public history in the first quar­ter of this century was the astute Frances Dorrance. Her passion was archaeology and the prehistoric settlement of Pennsylvania. Beginning in the 1920s in her native Wilkes­-Barre, she fostered a statewide archaeological program that embraced amateurs as well as professionals. In her capacity as director of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, she organized the first comprehensive archaeological survey in the Commonwealth by mailing more than thirteen thousand survey forms to twenty-one hundred postmas­ters! She single-handedly identified more than nineteen hundred archaeological sites in forty-seven counties.

Upon her appointment to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission in 1929, Dorrance established an archaeology committee and launched a number of significant projects. When the Pennsylvania Water and Power Company devel­oped plans to construct a mammoth dam across the Susquehanna River at Safe Harbor in York County, ar­chaeologists became con­cerned that a number of highly unusual petroglyphs would be inundated. Dorrance speedily suggested a cooperative ven­ture between the Commission and the utility company to record and research these invaluable prehistoric re­sources. Her influence, too, extended into matters of inter­est to historical archaeologists. The observances in the 1930s of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Pennsylvania and the three hundredth anniversary of the establishment of New Sweden encouraged her to initiate excavations at the sites now commonly known as Penns­bury Manor and Governor Printz Park.

Frances Dorrance fervently believed that a public history agency such as the Pennsylva­nia Historical Commission offered the opportunity to participate in what she called “out-door work,” later termed “historical field work” by pro­fessional historians. She was convinced that artifacts con­tained information as valuable as the written documents held by libraries and archives, and supported the “view to ascertain the story left in the ground by long past events and persons.” She also recog­nized the Commission as a bridge between academic and amateur, and was responsible for founding both the Society of Pennsylvania Archaeology in 1929, and the Pennsylvania Historical Association four years later.

As a result of Dorrance’s dedication and pioneering, both the Commission and the then independent Pennsylva­nia State Museum fostered an understanding and respect for the culture and history of Pennsylvania’s Native Ameri­can populations. Through the statewide surveys and field excavations, through collec­tions and exhibits and, eventu­ally, through a highly respected series of insightful anthropological reports, the Commission placed prehistory and archaeology on the agenda of public history pro­gramming.

The archaeological excava­tions at Pennsbury Manor led the Commission to further define its roles and responsi­bilities. By the close of the 1930s, William Penn’s country estate in Bucks County was the subject of reconstruction – and bitter controversy. The Com­mission, in addition to con­ducting archaeological research and erecting state historical markers, committed itself to telling the story of Pennsylvania through the physical preservation of important buildings, structures and sites. Following the lead of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission sought to shape public understanding of history by recreating the country house of Pennsylva­nia’s founding family. Even though the Commission had previously accepted ownership of historic properties for safe­keeping, the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor marked the first instance that it interpreted the past through the process of historic reconstruction.

The reconstruction of Pen­nsbury Manor was not an altogether rewarding experi­ence for the Commission. The architectural design and deco­rative details chosen for the imposing manor house and adjacent outbuildings more resembled the Colonial Revival style popular a half-century ago than the more modest­ – and more appropriate­ – seventeenth century residence in which the Penns probably lived. Clearly the Commission seemed determined to tell the founder’s saga as one of a landed aristocrat, rather than as a political idealist and reli­gious visionary. Working with incomplete archaeological evidence and scanty historical documentation, and hindered by compromising deadlines imposed by state government, the creators of Pennsbury Manor used the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williams­burg as an example to erect what they called a “memorial” to Penn, rather than an accu­rate reconstruction. Critics were not as kind in assessing the results. The Philadelphia Ledger called Pennsbury a “historical lie,” while others saw it as a work of historical propaganda. The criticism of the plan and design for the site extended well beyond the boundaries of the Common­wealth, and resulted in a much more cautious approach to restorations by later Commis­sions.

The reconstruction of Penn­sbury proved to be a signifi­cant turning point for the Pennsylvania Historical Com­mission. The content of the project looked backward by offering a version of history that reinforced, rather than challenged, prevailing atti­tudes and assumptions. On the other hand, while the message of the Pennsbury reconstruction may have been flawed, its medium was criti­cal: Pennsylvania’s history could be told through build­ings, furnishings and land­scapes. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Commission ac­quired title to several impor­tant properties and complexes, including Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, the Daniel Boone Homestead in Berks County and Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon County. In each and every case, the historic site stands as a text through which state and local, even national, history can be expressed and interpreted. The arrival of S. K. Stevens as state historian for the Com­mission coincided with the growing interest in the educa­tional value of historic sites and museums in both state and nation. For the following thirty-five years – almost half of the agency’s history­ – Stevens left an indelible mark on the world of public history and, as a result, thrust the Commission into a national leadership role. It was no accident that Stevens began his career with the Commis­sion as a founding member of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), nor that he closed his tenure as the first chairman of the federal Advisory Coun­cil on Historic Preservation.

Well known throughout Pennsylvania’s historical and cultural circles, S. K. Stevens was a prolific and accom­plished historian who special­ized in the Commonwealth’s economic history. Even after becoming the agency’s execu­tive director in 1956, he never abandoned his commitment to scholarship. However, it was as promoter of a series of the­matic museums that he was able to fulfill his ambition to bring Pennsylvania history within the reach of everyday citizens. The acquisition of the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, a fabulous collection of farming implements and rural furnishings, initiated a great period of museum devel­opment that included the Pennsylvania Military Mu­seum at Boalsburg, Centre County; the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, Strasburg, Lancaster County; the Penn­sylvania Lumber Museum near Galeton in Potter County; and the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Lack­awanna County. For years, Pennsylvania’s history was defined as the story of great individuals and their remark­able deeds, but under the leadership of S. K. Stevens, the Commonwealth’s history evolved to be told through the lives of working men and women. And the story was finding a receptive audience.

The merger of the Commis­sion, the State Archives and the Pennsylvania State Mu­seum in 1945, eight years after Stevens arrived, was more than bureaucratic convenience. The new agency, the present­-day Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, provided official recognition that the history of the Commonwealth would be told through its museums and historic sites, as well as its myriad records, documents, markers and publications.

The crowning achievement of Stevens’ illustrious career occurred in 1964 with the com­pletion of the William Penn Memorial Museum (now The State Museum of Pennsylva­nia) and Archives Building just north of the State Capitol in Harrisburg. At long last the Commonwealth had a facility equal to any in the country through which the saga of Pennsylvania could be col­lected, documented, preserved and exhibited. While The State Museum depicted the state’s natural history, technological achievements and cultural developments, the State Ar­chives, having undergone an extensive transformation in the previous decade, could now function as a bonafide center for research, publication and records management. With its strategic center-city location, the complex opened with much fanfare and served as testimony to the integral part public history had come to play in Pennsylvania’s cultural and political environments.

Toward the close of S. K. Stevens’ tenure as executive director, the federal govern­ment launched a new ap­proach to preserve and interpret state and local his­tory. Established by the Na­tional Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Reg­ister of Historic Places was coordinated by the Commis­sion to identify and record buildings, sites, structures, and entire districts deemed worthy of preservation.

The growth of the historic preservation movement in Pennsylvania represented a distinct departure in the mean­ing of public history. No longer was the Commission concerned only with artifacts, documents or properties owned by the Commonwealth. Supported by layers of federal legislation, rules and regula­tions, the Commission’s state­wide historic preservation program gained the authority to survey and assess the significance of properties owned either privately or by units of local government. The federal government also em­powered the agency to protect the most significant properties not owned by the state through federal matching grants and tax incentives.

The implications of the historic preservation program for public history were-and remain -far-reaching. The process of determining proper­ties eligible for listing in the National register required detailed property descriptions and extensive, documented statements of significance, resulting in a rich collection of architectural history and ar­chaeological data, supple­mented with an exhaustive record of photographs. To compile this extensive inven­tory required an interdiscipli­nary approach that makes use of history, art history, anthro­pology, folklore, geography and archaeology.

The evolution of Pennsylva­nia’s public history program has demonstrated the useful­ness of the visual and physical record as sources of informa­tion and interpretation. At the same time, the Commission has not ignored more tradi­tional forms of disseminating historical research. The Penn­sylvania Institute of Rural Life and Culture, established in 1956, and the Pennsbury Fo­rum, begun in 1961, are two annual conferences which attract general audiences from around the country, whose interests include recent re­search in history and material culture. Since 1978, the Com­mission, in collaboration with a statewide advisory commit­tee of scholars and teachers, has sponsored an annual con­ference on Pennsylvania’s Black history, offering new possibilities in local, regional and state history.

In addition to thematic conferences and meetings, the Commission has sustained an active publishing program as a primary means of telling Penn­sylvania’s story. Nearly one hundred and fifty titles have been published by the Com­mission since 1915. Many of these publications are docu­mentary in nature, the most notable of which is the series devoted to the papers of Henry Bouquet. Dozens of pamphlets and brochures complement the publications program and many serve as introductions to the Common­wealth’s historic sites and museums. Several mono­graphs have been published throughout the Commission’s history, particularly devoted to the fields of political and eth­nic history. The commitment to social and cultural history is best illustrated by the ex­tremely popular series dedi­cated to anthropology and oral history.

In recent years the Commis­sion’s most significant venture has been the quarterly publica­tion of the popularly styled – ­and award-winning – mag­azine, Pennsylvania Heritage. With its attractive color format and variety of well-written articles on state and local his­tory, Pennsylvania Heritage has assumed an exemplary posi­tion in its genre. The content reflects the true meaning of public history: articles which translate the work of scholar­ship to a popular, clear style that is accessible to the general public. In its effort to remain popular, however, the maga­zine has not been reluctant to take on controversial historical issues. Perhaps its most im­portant contribution lies in the articles that recount the Com­monwealth’s history through the experiences of ordinary citizens. The inclusiveness of the type of history found in Pennsylvania Heritage is a strik­ing example of the intellectual journey that the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission has made during its seventy-five years.

With all that has been ac­complished by the Commis­sion – truly a national leader in public history – much remains to be done. The State Museum of Pennsylvania is still without an interpretive gallery for the Commonwealth’s social his­tory, a deficiency that will be addressed in the near future. Pennsylvania Heritage, despite its excellent articles and out­standing illustrations, does not reach a broad audience and, therefore, its impact in stimu­lating public discussion about history is limited. The Commission stands at the very edge of the Information Age, but has not nearly made use of the automated, electronic technology that could make information about its impres­sive collection of artifacts, documents, objects and build­ings available to a public which is enthusiastic about Pennsylvania’s fascinating heritage. An analysis of the properties in Pennsylvania listed in the National Register of Historic Places has revealed a lack of representative major themes in the state’s history. In fact, registration efforts have been driven more by environ­mental regulations and eco­nomic development, rather than by the need to tell the story of Pennsylvania.

The greatest challenge the Commission faces is the con­tent of its work. For a public history agency to make an impact upon the understand­ing of state history requires an acknowledgement of a certain tension in the conduct of the agency’s work. The public endowment which provides support theoretically places some constraints upon the kind of history which is writ­ten and presented to the pub­lic. As a result there is a tendency to provide a sani­tized, unthreatening version of history that reinforces basic attitudes and assumptions about the past. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that the public is quite willing, even eager, to be prodded and provoked to think in new ways about familiar subjects. In fact, public historians probably practice unnecessary self­-censorship in the belief that the general public and, espe­cially, public officials will not tolerate interpretations of the past that differ from official or accepted versions . Unless the Commission strengthens the content of its work, accepts a certain level of risk-taking, and acknowledge’s historical con­troversy and dissenting inter­pretations, it will probably lose the loyalty of the broad audi­ence. The role of the Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commission as the Common­wealth’s Memory requires that the agency does more than safeguard the treasures it possesses. The Commission must interpret the past in all its complexity and richness and contradictions. That elu­sive but worthy goal lies ahead as the next quarter century dawns.


For Further Reading

Kent, Barry C. Discovering Pennsylvania’s Archeological Heritage. Harrisburg: Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commission, 1980.

McElroy, Cathryn J. “Preserving Pieces of Pennsylvania’s Past: An Inside Look at the Building of the Commonwealth’s Collections.” Pennsylvania Heritage. 10, 3 (Summer 1984): 18-25.

Nichols, Roy F. The Pennsylva­nia Historical and Museum Commission: A History. Har­risburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1967.

Oblinger, Carl and Cyril Griffith, eds. Pennsylvania Heritage Special Edition: Black History and Culture. 4,1 (Winter 1977).

O’Malley, Michael J., III. “His­toric Preservation in Pennsylva­nia: A Primer.” Pennsylvania Heritage. 5, 1 (Winter 1978): 22-25.

Pennsylvania’s Landmarks: From the Delaware to the Ohio. Lebanon, Pa.: Applied Arts Publishers, 1982.

Stevens, S. K. My Pennsylva­nia. Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1982.

Weaver, William Ways and Nancy D. Kolb. “Okie Speaks for Penns­bury.” Pennsylvania Heritage, 8, 4 (Fall 1982): 22-26; 9, 1 (Win­ter 1983), 22-26.


Brent D. Glass has served as executive director of the Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commission since 1987. From 1983 to 1987, he acted as executive director of the North Carolina Humanities Council, and was the Deputy State Historic Preserva­tion Officer for the North Caro­lina Division of Archives and History for four years. In addition to lecturing, he has written nu­merous articles on urban, indus­trial and public history.