ABOVE PHOTO: (Photo Credit: Tony Webb, Office of the City Representative / City of Philadelphia 2018)
City officials and partners officially opened the new Philadelphia City Archives on December 6 and dedicated an interactive new mural created for the site through the City’s Percent for Art Program.
The state-of-the-art facility features a new interactive mural and a treasure trove of Philadelphia knowledge, visual assets, records, research and history.
The fully renovated facility located at 548 Spring Garden St. will feature new permanent public artwork created for the Archives. The art experience will be enhanced by a new augmented reality app, “Resistance: Philadelphia,” which is available for free to the public at major app stores. The Archives was recently renovated relocating from 3101 Market St., its home for 20 years.
“The new state-of-the-art City Archives contains the narrative of Philadelphia, linking our past to our present,” Mayor Kenney, who was unable to attend the event, said. “The powerful mural by local artist Talia Greene connects part of that history by visually focusing on the inexcusable injustices, and serves as an important educational tool. For up to 3,000 annual visitors — researchers, historians and the public — the new Archives effectively preserve and shine a light on Philadelphia’s legacy. I would like to thank the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, the Department of Records and all of the partners who were committed to the success of this project.”
Joining Records Commissioner James P. Leonard at the event were V. Chapman Smith, formerly of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; First District City Councilman Mark Squilla; Margot Berg, the City’s public art director; City Representative Sheila Hess, and local artist Talia Greene.
The new $10 million space is 65,000 square feet, with 20 parking spaces, and is central to public transportation and Center City. It accommodates the growing needs of a modern archives and includes a climate-control system to preserve historical documents.
The expansive space is environmentally friendly and incorporates a variety of energy efficient elements, such as LED lights, light sensors, a modern building-automation system and energy saving-high efficiency HVAC equipment, with supplemental humidity control systems. The public areas of the Archives also were designed to bring in maximum natural light.
The project’s developer was Alliance HSP Philadelphia Warehouse, LP; the general contractor was Clemens Construction Company, Inc., and the building was designed by D2CA Architects, LLC. The Archives is overseen by Deputy Commissioner Tracey T. Williams, who supervises a staff of five employees including clerks, archivists and a curator. The lighting and 23-foot high ceilings are a vast improvement from the previous Market Street facility, with high-density 13.5-foot shelving, creating 76 rows for maximum storage. The overall storage area is 4,830 square feet.
The arduous process of packing and transporting the delicate contents of the Archives from its former home began last summer. The Archives collection contains 2 million photographs, 400 film items, more than 37,000 bound volumes and thousands of miscellaneous plans, microfilm/microfiche, historical files and records.
“The records housed in the City Archives are a fundamental means for understanding the historical development of Philadelphia from its origins to the present day, and, importantly, reflect the changing needs of its residents,” said Commissioner of Records James P. Leonard. “Examples of specific subject areas covered in the Archives include Philadelphia’s role in the anti-slavery movement and Underground Railroad, the history of Fairmount Park and the expansion and development of Philadelphia’s municipal government. The development of Philadelphia is reflected and chronicled in our modern new archival home that will continue to educate the public about our shared history.”
The wealth of material preserved in the City Archives includes includes original architectural plans from the 1870s for City Hall, which took 30 years to complete; 18th-century City records with signatures of some of the nation’s founders (Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin), and Civil War-era scholar and civil-rights activist Octavius V. Catto’s death certificate. The earliest original documents are the William Penn City Charter (1701) and the Common Council Minutes of the first legislative meeting (the precursor to City Council) in 1704, while the newest notable item is the 2016 design drawings for the Octavius V. Catto memorial from the Philadelphia Art Commission.
The Archives also is a valuable repository for family-history researchers and professional genealogists (births, marriages, deaths, naturalizations, Guardians of the Poor, prison, court records and deeds); property researchers (deeds, title registration sheets, ward atlases and plot maps, building permits, and court records), academics and the general public.
The Archives opened to the public at its new site recently after an eight-month renovation. The building now serves as a spacious modern working environment for staff, meeting the overall function and criteria of preservation.
Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district covers the Northern Liberties area, introduced an ordinance for the building lease in 2016. It took two years to design, build and move from its former location.
City of Philadelphia participants in the project are: Philadelphia Department of Records; the Office of Arts, and Culture and the Creative Economy; Office of the City Representative; Office of Information Technology, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer; Risk Management; Procurement Department; Budget and Finance Department; Department of Public Property; Law Department; Register of Wills and City Council.
The artwork was commissioned through the City’s Percent for Art Program and the project was a collaboration of the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy as well as the City Department of Records. It was created by artist Talia Greene, 42, a resident of Chestnut Hill and teacher at the University of the Arts in Center City.
Philadelphia has been credited as the home of the nation’s oldest and largest public-art collections, in part due to the City’s Percent for Art Program, which is exemplified in the Archives new mural.
“The charge of the City’s Percent for Art Program,” said Public Art Director Margot Berg, “is to commission public art that responds specifically to the site and that encourages conversation, inquiry and engagement. This new artwork acts as a pictorial representation of the remarkable Archives collection, while inviting the public to investigate more deeply through the unique feature of the interactive app.
Kelly Lee, chief cultural officer of the City of Philadelphia, said it is the Percent for Art Program’s first interactive mural that incorporates augmented reality. The new public space invites Philadelphians to engage with its contents through both the artwork and archivists onsite, she added.
Variant VR created the augmented reality app, Resistance: Philadelphia (IOS, Android) — a free downloadable mobile app allowing visitors to enhance their experience. The app and its contents were developed in collaboration with artist Talia Greene and the School District of Philadelphia, local universities/institutions and a panel of experts nationwide.
Using either a tablet computer provided at the Archives or their own device, visitors can learn more about figures from Philadelphia’s abolitionist movement, as well as the history and impact of red-lining practices in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The app is available on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. The app content can be accessed anywhere, but to interact with the mural and truly explore the Archives, officials are encouraging the public to visit the space.
The interactive mural, “Charting a Path to Resistance,” begins in the foyer of the building and continues in the adjacent public research room. Installed in October, it adeptly chronicles the racism and discrimination of our collective past and celebrates the opposing acts of resistance. Using documents from the City Archives and Register of Wills collections to highlight this history, the artwork’s narrative focuses on abolitionism and housing discrimination in Philadelphia. For example, the artwork includes Philadelphia civil rights activist Catto’s death certificate and information about his tragic murder.
The mural’s design is inspired by the Archives’ vintage maps, which chart the development of Philadelphia’s streets and the conversion of the natural waterways to sewers. The most prominent network of lines alludes to the City’s street grid and establishes a framework for the display of other documents from the collection.
The primary Archives document displayed in the mural, a redlining map of Philadelphia, was created by a private company and given to the City in 1944. Each section of the map displayed on the mural highlights a location relevant to the story of resistance. As viewers walk along the mural, they notice sections of the map cut out, revealing archival documents relating to important people, events or organizations from this history. The fully exposed documents, highlighted with a red outline, become gateways to more information, revealed while using the interactive app.
Scanning documents at the beginning of the piece will allow viewers to read and hear stories of housing discrimination through the 1960s, with an introduction contextualizing this history in the present day. As viewers follow the mural, moving through the foyer and into the reading room, they will slide back in time, with stories of resistance to housing discrimination making way for stories of resistance to slavery.
“My goal for this project is two-fold: to highlight ignored aspects of our city’s history using maps and records from the Archives, and to convey the experience of discovery, which visitors encounter at the Archives,” said muralist Talia Greene.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, an interactive “reflection booth” was temporarily installed onsite to allow visitors to share their thoughts on video about the mural and their experiences with resistance. Visitors received those videos by e-mail, and were encouraged to share them on their social-media accounts.