Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: City of Museums

by columnist Madeline Karp,

Since college, I have tried really hard to dislike Philadelphia. It probably had something to do with dating a guy from Pittsburgh, but it mostly boiled down to this: its not big like New York, it’s not the capital like Washington, it’s not as strong-willed as Boston, and I hate all its sports teams. I’ve been known to call it Filth-adelphia from time to time, and curse its middling existence when driving between Washington to New York. It feels like an “unspecial” city. And did I mention that I really hate all the sports teams?

But, here I am living in Philadelphia, and I’m going to tell you a secret. Ready?

I kind of really like it here.

It was a puzzling thing for me – liking a city I’d decided to hate – until I heard a short bit on NPR, featuring Penn professor David Brownlee that made it all click into place.

Philadelphia is the birthplace of the American museum.

In 1789, Charles Wilson Peale (of The Artist in His Museum self-portrait fame) founded The Philadelphia Museum, a collection of odds and ends, paintings and taxidermy specimens he had acquired over the years.


Peale was the first to establish collection loans when he borrowed taxidermy specimens for his museum from a London institution, and was also the first to adopt the Linnaean taxonomy, presenting his specimens as scientific pieces for study and education, rather than for entertainment or shock value as many other curio collections did at the time.

Other Philadelphia museums quickly popped up, and spread the idea that collections could be used to broaden the mind and cultural horizons. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (founded in 1806) is the oldest art school and museum in the United States. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel (founded in 1812) is the oldest science research institution, and the Franklin Institute (1824) was one of the first museums in the western hemisphere to dedicate itself specifically to science education.

For a history major and a museum studies graduate, that’s a lot of BIG museum firsts.

(FYI – The oldest established museum I could find in Boston was the Boston Athanaeum, founded in 1807. Let me know if there’s an older one.)

Maybe Philadelphia feels “unspecial” to me because at so many times it has been special for different reasons. For a little while it was the nation’s capital, then the industrial capital, then arts capital and then a center for scientific and philosophical thought.

And, as Brownlee posits, this fluctuating role in history is also represented in its museums. How, where and why certain institutions were built can represent a city at a certain moment – much the way your high school yearbook photo represents you when you graduated.

I often ask my peers: do museums have a specific personality based on their location? Is a modern art museum in Chicago, for example, fundamentally different from one in San Francisco? Or is a museum a museum a museum, no matter where you go?

Personally, I subscribe to the idea of a personality. I do think museums have a certain feel depending on the city.

Washington gets to have the Nationals – the museums that represent the United States as a whole. Boston gets the Revolutionaries– the places that talk about colonial life and the start of American history and culture. New York has the Hipster-Highbrows – institutions that are as big, as fancy and as eclectic as its population.

But I think Philadelphia has something extra special. It has the Firsts. The places that went through the growing pains and all the changes that make American museums what they are today. And, oddly, for being the City of Museums (as Brownlee put it), Philadelphia institutions don’t feel pretentious.

Sadly, Peale’s Philadelphia Museum failed and the collection was sold, so you can’t go see the first American museum. But Peale’s idea for an educational institution remained, and can be seen in all sorts of museums, both in Philadelphia and around the United States.

What do you think? Do museums have “personalities” based on location? How important is it to be labeled oldest, first or biggest?

To hear Brownlee’s interview on NPR, click here


  1. I do think there’s something in a place that affects a museum – at least a good one. A museum that could be plunked down just anywhere, without any connection to its community, is usually a bad one. (See also why I am sometimes wary of nationally-themed museums located in somewhat random places, like the World War II museum in New Orleans.)

    At the same time, characterizing a place’s museums can be troublesome. There are some great non-Revolutionary museums in Boston: the Nichols House comes to mind. It interprets a less-popular time, however, and I suspect people don’t visit as often because it’s off the Freedom Trail. Similarly, how many Rev War museums does one city really need? There’s a lot of duplication there.

  2. I think something that perhaps goes unsaid with this question is that there is also a distinct way locals see museums versus the way tourists see them. What I was getting at is the way people broadly paint a city’s museums from afar – what do you think of when you think about City X’s cultural institutions?

    Having lived in Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and the NY metro-area, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many institutions from the perspective of both visitor and local. When I moved to Boston, the first thing I wanted to do was the Freedom Trail, because it is such a good snapshot of one of the city’s most famous moments and I wanted to take that in ASAP. But once I’d lived there for a few months/years and calmed down, I was way more into the local galleries, which I think helped capture the way the city functions from day to day. It was a much more intimate experience because I was more intimately familiar with Boston, it’s local history, politics and population.

    The way one interacts with a city is complicated, and I think has something to do with the amount time spent there. I think the way one responds to cultural institutions can be equally complicated and similarly informed by timing (both in the short- and long-term sense.)

  3. Philly museums rule!!! Whoo!!!

    Yo, what do those New York museums have that we don’t have? I’ll tell ya what: pussies! Philly rules!

    D.C. has all these lovely Smithsonians. Yeah, they’re lovely if you wanna take a beatin’. K&A forever! What! Step off!

    “Ooh, look at me. I’m from Boston and I have museums about tea parties and other stupid stuff that nobody cares about.” Oh yeah?! Ya know what Philly museums have? Fuck you. That’s what.

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