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.

With more than 20 sites and museums on PHMC’s Pennsylvania Trails of History, each year is full of events, tours, programs and visits. Historical milestones are commemorated — such as the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings during World War II or the centennial of Pennsylvania’s ratification of the 19th Amendment — and “everyday” history is remembered in artifact exhibits, cooking demonstrations, craft skills workshops, and historic interiors, gardens, farm fields and streetscapes. Here are a few highlights from 2019 and some previews of 2020.

 

Christal Lepak and Lori Morse-Dolan of the Erie County Chapter of the League of Women Voters accept a proclamation honoring women’s suffrage from Gary Lee, Erie County director of administration, in the lobby of the Erie Maritime Museum, June 24, 2019. Erie Maritime Museum, PHMC / Linda Bolla

Christal Lepak and Lori Morse-Dolan of the Erie County Chapter of the League of Women Voters accept a proclamation honoring women’s suffrage from Gary Lee, Erie County director of administration, in the lobby of the Erie Maritime Museum, June 24, 2019.
Erie Maritime Museum, PHMC / Linda Bolla

Women’s Suffrage Centennial

On June 24, 1919, Pennsylvania became the seventh state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides that the right to vote cannot be “denied or abridged” on the basis of sex. (It would be more than a year before the necessary 36 states approved the amendment, so the commemorations will continue into 2020.) Erie Maritime Museum and U.S. Brig Niagara (flagshipniagara.org) partnered with the Erie County League of Women Voters to commemorate Pennsylvania’s centennial. The museum presented a pop-up exhibit highlighting Erie’s suffrage history, including the first suffrage march in Pennsylvania, which took place in July 1913 as part of Erie’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie.

On June 24, 2019, the League of Women Voters handed out voter registration forms in the museum lobby and accepted proclamations from the county and city of Erie. Church bells pealed at noon in honor of the women who fought for the right to vote.

 

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEIA)

During our kick-off workshops for PHMC’s 21st Century Museums initiative in 2018, the Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums (BHSM) identified access for people with disabilities as a major focus for 2019. Physical access in our museums and historic buildings for people using wheelchairs has been addressed for many years under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Programmatic access has not been ignored, but there is still much work to be done to ensure that our exhibits and programs are as open as possible for visitors — on their terms and schedules — and that our staff and volunteer corps are representative of the communities we serve. In December 2018 we worked with PA Museums (Pennsylvania’s statewide museum association) to apply for a federal grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to develop a project we’re calling “Accessibility Excellence.” We were successful and will spend the next two years (starting from October 1) working with members of the disability community to develop and test a framework for assessing our sites and museums and eliminating barriers to participation.

As part of PHMC’s DEIA initiative, the Railroad Museum offered American Sign Language interpretation for deaf and hard of hearing children at its 2019 Reading on the Rails event, which featured a variety of children’s books read by local notables. Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC

As part of PHMC’s DEIA initiative, the Railroad Museum offered American Sign Language interpretation for deaf and hard of hearing children at its 2019 Reading on the Rails event, which featured a variety of children’s books read by local notables.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC

While we waited during most of 2019 to learn our grant fate, BHSM and site staff took exploratory steps to improve access at our sites. A meeting at the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services’ (BBVS) Harrisburg office (part of the state Department of Labor & Industry) led us to Aira, a service that provides real-time audio description through the user’s smartphone or special glasses fitted with a camera. When we first talked to the folks at Aira, they were just launching the service at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and there wasn’t much information yet on how it would work in a museum. PHMC is currently piloting the service at six sites — Erie Maritime Museum, Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum, Old Economy Village, Pennsylvania Military Museum, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Staff at Erie Maritime Museum worked with the Erie office of BBVS to get their feedback on the service and passed useful suggestions on to the rest of us.

In addition to their assistance with Aira, staff in the Harrisburg BBVS office have also made site visits to Landis Valley and the Military Museum, making recommendations for improvements to access that will be folded into the Accessibility Excellence program. Erie BBVS staff also provided training for Erie Maritime Museum guides to help them provide support to blind visitors and those with low vision as they experience the museum.

One of the greatest challenges for removing barriers to access at historic sites is that many of the experiences we offer are self-guided. Visitors are free to explore as their interests dictate, with staff and volunteers available (as much as possible) to answer questions. Explanatory signage may be posted in some areas, but we also want to retain the character of historic interiors to provide visitors with an authentic sense of place. At Landis Valley, staff developed a written guide to the Country Store exhibit building, specifically with deaf and hard of hearing visitors in mind. Available in both English and Spanish, the guide was printed in large type to increase readability. A series of “sniffers” was added to the Country Store to replicate common products found in a general store to broaden the sensory experience. The Accessibility Excellence project will explore additional ways to make historic site visits, including tours and demonstrations, more accessible for casual visitors.

 

The 30th Street Station Solari board, the last one to have been in service for Amtrak, sits securely on its new base along Platform 5 West, near the Railroad Museum's yard entrance. Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC

The 30th Street Station Solari board, the last one to have been in service for Amtrak, sits securely on its new base along Platform 5 West, near the Railroad Museum’s yard entrance.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC

30th Street Station Solari Board at the Railroad Museum

On January 26, 2019, the split-flap arrivals-and-departures board at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station was retired from service by Amtrak. Split-flap signs, also known as “Solari boards” after the Italian company that manufactured them, have been a part of modern travel for more than half a century. The announcement in 2016 that Philadelphia’s split-flap board would be removed to make way for ADA-compliant signage was met with considerable public outcry. Eventually, despite numerous pleas for a reprieve, Amtrak removed the sign and has placed
it on loan to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania (rrmuseumpa.org), where it went on display in July. We are happy to have it as part of the museum’s exhibits of other railroading icons. Because the board is on loan and not part of PHMC’s collections, it is a static exhibit, but there are plans to install a video display to show the board in operation.

 

Upcoming Events

Winter is generally quieter on the Trails of History, with some sites closed or on reduced hours, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do. On January 5, 2020, the Joseph Priestley House (josephpriestleyhouse.org) will host its annual Twelfth Night program, honoring an English Christmas tradition that Priestley and his family would have known well. At the end of January, Ephrata Cloister kicks off its Winter History Class, which meets Thursdays through March covering the history of the community at Ephrata as well as the context in which the group existed. Visit ephratacloister.org for details on topics and to register.

On February 14-16 visitors to the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum may arrive by snowmobile and park near the visitor center to explore the museum and outdoor exhibits. Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, PHMC

On February 14-16 visitors to the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum may arrive by snowmobile and park near the visitor center to explore the museum and outdoor exhibits.
Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, PHMC

When winter gets to be too much, check out the Historic Pithole Cabin Fever Party on February 1, with sledding and snacks (details at drakewell.org), or the Snow-Mobility Weekend at the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum (lumbermuseum.org), February 14–16, where you can park your snowmobile to visit the exhibits or cross-country ski on the trails, if it snows that is. Even if there is no snow, a pancake breakfast will be served on Saturday, February 15.

Sunday, March 8, 2020, is Charter Day, our annual celebration of the 1681 Charter by which King Charles II of England granted William Penn the land we now call Pennsylvania. The State Museum of Pennsylvania and most other sites on the Trails of History will be open free of charge. Visit PATrailsofHistory.com to plan your day.

 

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.