Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.
Site closures and school visit and event cancellations have already caused a strain on budgets. Pennsbury Manor used its Facebook page to ramp up its campaign to raise funds to provide supplies and vet care for the animals who help interpret 17th-century life at the site. Pennsbury Manor / Photo by Tom Turner

Site closures and school visit and event cancellations have already caused a strain on budgets. Pennsbury Manor used its Facebook page to ramp up its campaign to raise funds to provide supplies and vet care for the animals who help interpret 17th-century life at the site.
Pennsbury Manor / Photo by Tom Turner

In a normal year, this column would be devoted to a preview of summer events on the Pennsylvania Trails of History. This is not a normal year. As my deadline approaches, sites remain closed to the public, with events and activities canceled. We had to forego the Keystone Summer Internship program and postpone our annual Volunteer of the Year recognition event (although we did manage a virtual “thank you” to our honorees). Gov. Tom Wolf announced that all public and private schools in Pennsylvania would remain closed for the rest of the school year, which means that our normally busy spring school tour season will be nonexistent. Early summer programs are starting to fall by the wayside as the uncertainty of the situation makes planning difficult, if not impossible. I hope that by the time you read this, we have reopened to the public and you are able to visit with us. The best way to keep up to date with developments at our sites is via PHMC’s homepage (phmc.pa.gov) or by following your favorite sites on social media.

 

PHMC Responds to COVID-19

As dire as all of the above sounds (and it does create significant morale and budget challenges all around), staff have been working either on-site to maintain and secure buildings and collections or teleworking on projects to enhance communications with the public. Like those we serve, we have balanced working from home with family responsibilitiesn and the stresses of a global pandemic.

Existing digital content has been repurposed, and new offerings have been developed. Even during a stressful time such as this, our staff and volunteers have shown resilience and creativity in keeping our sites and their missions in front of the public. We’ve practiced physical distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and provided resources to help others staying at home feel less isolated, using the hashtags #LearnInPlacePA and #MuseumFromHome.

In a scene becoming increasingly familiar, PHMC and PA Museums staff used an online meeting to discuss progress on a grant-funded project to improve access and inclusion at historic sites and museums. PA Museums / Photo by Jenny Angell

In a scene becoming increasingly familiar, PHMC and PA Museums staff used an online meeting to discuss progress on a grant-funded project to improve access and inclusion at historic sites and museums.
PA Museums / Photo by Jenny Angell

Coloring pages was a popular offering early in the stay-at-home period, allowing sites to use existing resources created for school groups and younger visitors. Word searches and other puzzles using site history or vocabulary made their appearance. (As I write this, we’re working on ideas for Trails of History Bingo.) As time wore on, site staff worked on new resource materials for parents and caregivers facing the prospect of keeping children (and themselves) occupied with meaningful learning and entertained to lessen the boredom. Old Economy Village developed a resource packet about education in the 19th century (normally part of their school tour focus) with related hands-on activities. Pennsbury Manor launched a distance learning site (pennsburymanor.wixsite.com/pennsburymanor) to gather online resources in one convenient place for families learning at home.

Sites have been increasing their online presence for years now, depending on staff and volunteer capacity. The museum field, in general, has been grappling with the best ways to balance digital engagement with in-person visits. COVID-19 has thrown our equilibrium decidedly to the online side of the equation. It’s where we have to be for now. With in-person visits and programs canceled, sites have been sharing orientation videos and virtual tours with the public, as well as film footage and photos of past events at the site (such as the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum’s Bark Peelers’ Festival and Summer Camp or Old Economy Village’s Harmonist reunions in the mid-20th century). Drake Well Museum & Park, after canceling its March lecture series, created an online series via Facebook with recordings of past lectures and some live presentations. As the weeks turned into a month or more, sites began experimenting with behind-the-scenes video and storytime events.

Our greatest resources, besides our staff and volunteers, are our collections. Many sites are posting photos and objects and asking followers to identify unusual objects, answer questions that require close looking, or simply highlighting the depth and scope of the material culture PHMC sites hold and interpret. It’s been a good way to include objects or images that are not currently on exhibit. Many of our curators have spent time working from home to continue preparing and uploading entries to PHMC’s Museum Collections online portal (phmc.pa.gov/Museums), a work in progress that provides public access to a growing selection of objects housed at The State Museum of Pennsylvania and other PHMC sites and museums.

For those of us normally headquartered in the Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums office in Harrisburg, working from home has meant a lot of video meetings, usually with folks based at sites. We, like many people able to work from home, have become adept at muting and unmuting our microphones and managing our bandwidth by turning our cameras on and off.

Work has continued on many fronts, including the Accessibility Excellence project, a joint effort between PHMC and PA Museums that was funded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services in the fall. We are currently developing an assessment tool that will help museums and historic sites gauge their level of accessibility across a wide range of factors. Our in-house working group met in Harrisburg in January and has continued to work via email and video meetings to craft the assessment under the guidance of our project manager, Jennifer Angell.

The Somerset Historical Center featured this object from its collection for Whatsit Wednesday on Facebook. The curator later revealed this to be a Vapo-Cresolene Vaporizer, falsely promoted in the 1880s as a remedy for all kinds of respiratory illnesses. Somerset Historical Center

The Somerset Historical Center featured this object from its collection for Whatsit Wednesday on Facebook. The curator later revealed this to be a Vapo-Cresolene Vaporizer, falsely promoted in the 1880s as a remedy for all kinds of respiratory illnesses.
Somerset Historical Center

PHMC’s response to COVID-19 is constantly evolving, and even though, as I write this, we don’t know what our timetable will be, staff are already making plans for our eventual reopening and using this time to gain new skills and learn new information. We hope you’ll be along for the ride.

 

Collections Highlight

Each week, Somerset Historical Center features objects from its collection for Whatsit Wednesday on Facebook. One of the objects in April was a timely addition to the current conversation. The original post described the object as one that followers “might have used if you lived through this pandemic in an earlier time.” Commenters took the hint and guessed that it was a vaporizer of some sort.

In a subsequent post, curator Jacob Miller explained that this Vapo-Cresolene Vaporizer (1880s) used kerosene to heat and vaporize Cresolene, a coal tar byproduct. “This treatment was promoted by the manufacturer as able to cure ‘whooping cough, spasmodic croup, nasal catarrh, colds, bronchitis, coughs, sore throat, pneumonia, the paroxysms of asthma and hay fever, the bronchial complications of scarlet fever and measles and as an aid in the treatment of diphtheria and certain inflammatory throat diseases.’” Miller also provided a link to the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing blog, which notes that as early as 1908 the American Medical Association declared these lamps a sham. Not only were they ineffective, they could be poisonous if used in poorly ventilated spaces.

 

Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites & Museums. She writes a weekly blog also called Trailheads at patrailheads.blogspot.com.