Global Philadelphia: Beyond the American Story

Shan Holt, December 2005

Philadelphia extends a special welcome to AHA members not primarily interested in American history. From its beginnings as an outpost of European empire-building through its current worldwide mix of immigrant neighborhoods, this quintessentially "American" city has always had a global reach. While you are here, we encourage you to explore global Philadelphia, as generations of visiting foreigners have done, both for research and for pleasure.

For pure pleasure, you can start with the food, because Philadelphia's neighborhoods offer a vast array of international cuisines. Follow your mouse to the restaurant search site, www.americascuisine.com, and you can quickly find nearly all there is to offer.

One place you will surely want to visit is the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (3260 South St., 215-898-4000). The name reflects traditions of ethnocentrism, of course, but the collections and interpretations in the many stunning exhibit galleries are thoroughly modern and entrancing. Some highlights include the Arctic cultures of the northwestern US and Canada, Egyptian archaeology, Islamic tile design and fountain architecture, Mayan and Polynesian textiles, Akan gold and Chinese porcelain, Japanese Buddhist temple architecture, and a special exhibit on the intertwined Mediterranean worlds of the Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans. The museum also holds many more artifacts than it can display, and with advance notice, the helpful and generous curators may be able to show you something directly pertinent to your research interests. The museum has generously offered free admission with an AHA registration badge.

If you'd like to follow the footsteps of European travelers who toured 19th-century Philadelphia, start at the Fairmount Waterworks, North America's first municipal water system (640 Waterworks Dr., 215-685-4908). The waterworks promised to help control sanitation-related epidemics that afflicted American and European cities. A few blocks from the waterworks stands the old Eastern State Penitentiary, another draw for Europeans and the first incarceration facility in the world designed for and absolutely dedicated to the rehabilitation of inmates (22nd and Fairmount Ave., 215-236-3300). This building also drew legions of foreign visitors, among them Charles Dickens, who hated it, and Alexis de Tocqueville, who used it as the justification for his famous tour of the early nation. The penitentiary system ultimately failed, but the building's overwhelming scale and colorful history make it a very rewarding place to see. The museum is closed in the winter, but the Local Arrangements Committee has arranged a tour on Saturday, January 7.

Philadelphia has a thriving rare books trade and anyone interested in international primary materials might usefully explore what is available through the Philadelphia Rare Book & Manuscript Company (215-744-6734). A search for materials related to Roman Catholics, for example, yielded a 17th-century Mexican woodcut illustration, an 18th-century pamphlet disputing the rights of lay canons in the French city of Lyon, and a second Venice edition of Gregory the Great's commentary on the book of Job. Other searches produced an 1824 edition of Archibald Robbins's journal of his captivity among Arabs after the capture of his ship, Commerce. The staff can answer inquiries in at least five languages.

Those interested in contemporary Africa would enjoy a visit to West Philadelphia's East Africa Resource and Study Center (3809 Pearl St., 215-382-3191). The center offers exhibits, collections, and rich conversations with founders Bill and Betty Baumann. The center's exhibits and programs reflect years of interaction and exchange between the Baumanns and Kenyan friends and scholars. The current main exhibit, Ordinary Objects—Extraordinary People, conveys the beauty, harmony, and human mastery of the harsh sub-Saharan environments through artifacts of the nomadic tribes of Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Suppressed Voices—Sudanese Contemporary Paintings features the work of artists who challenged the repressive regime during 1990s.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art featured an exhibition entitled African Art, African Voices that closed in January 2005. The web site prepared for the exhibition, however, still lists local resources for research and galleries that sell African art pieces. The art museum would be an excellent destination for people interested in European and Asian material culture and art as well (Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. and 26th St., 215-763-8100).

Visitors whose research focuses on the Caribbean should visit Taller Puertorriqueño (2721 N 5th St., 215-426-3311), which maintains exhibits and a research archive on Puerto Rico and its peoples. Caribbean scholars might also be interested in visiting Philadelphia's 18th century Catholic churches. Protected by William Penn's revolutionary Charter of Privileges (1701), Catholics in Philadelphia had a freedom to celebrate the Roman Mass unique within the British Empire. In the 1790s, ironically, these churches played host to wealthy refugee slaveholders fleeing to the United States from Toussaint L'Ouverture's defeat of French, Spanish, and British forces in Haiti.

For research, you can also find substantial resources on European intellectual and scientific life in the collections of the American Philosophical Society (105 S 5th St., 215-440-3400) and on Atlantic world print culture at The Library Company of Philadelphia (1314 Locust St., 215-546-3181, www.librarycompany.org). In both archives you will find skilled archivists with excellent knowledge of the collections to help you. The German Society of Pennsylvania (611 Spring Garden St., 215-627-2332) offers its rich collection on Germans, Germany, and German immigrants to researchers, though they do not maintain exhibits. Their hours are limited, so do check ahead of time.

From churches to galleries, research collections to restaurants, you can follow your international interests to good effect in our global city. We welcome you to explore now, and to come back again and again.

—Shan Holt, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.