by Jim Brown
What if today’s youth could go back in time to
experience firsthand the American Centennial period of the
1870’s AND see how this crucial historical period continues
to impact their lives? By thinking ‘outside the box’, the
Please Touch Museum has risen to the challenge and created
or simulated such an experience with its novel new exhibit
(CENTENNIAL INNOVATIONS) on the very site of the
first Parks Commission or World’s Fair which was held in
Philadelphia in 1876 with Morton McMichael as its first
Parks Commissioner. The elementary school which bears his
name is located in the nearby Mantua section of West
Recently this newspaper interviewed the Please Touch
Museum’s CEO Trish Wellenbach about the passion,
purpose, and vision behind its “New Centennial” Exhibit
which is due to open next month (April 2020). She
expressed her strong interest in and appreciation of this
crucial period of American history. Wellenbach noted in
particular the outreach initiatives that are specifically
directed towards children.
They reflect the museum’s mission statement that reads in
part “We Build Brains”….by developing learning through
play. She emphasized that “we have a half million
(500,000) visits a year, and of that visitorship about a quarter
of the visitors come through our commitment that children
will have access to a museum experience.
So there are 110.000 children who come for free or the $2.00
admission on every Wednesday of the month”. Wellenbach
also noted that the museum will add three free community
days this year that will be linked to a variety of programs and
initiatives that the Please Touch Museum is promoting. The
upcoming CENTENNIAL INNOVATIONS exhibit seeks to
greatly expand on Please Touch Museum programs that
teach our children “ how the past connects to and informs us
about the future”.
““We’ve been working on this exhibit for about four (4) years,” explained an enthusiastic Wellenbach. “We spent an entire year doing research and working with focus groups and general visitors, educators, Parkside community members and they’ve all had a
voice on how this exhibit came together and we’ve continued to engage those communities in the process along the way.”
“This was part of the museum that was woefully underused and we wanted to really bring it to life,” explained CEO Wellenbach. “
The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was held in Philadelphia and called the World’s Fair. It lasted from May 10th through November 10th to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the signing of the
Declaration of Independence.
This building was previously called Memorial Hall and it was designed by Herman J. Schwarzmann. Philadelphia was a very popular destination site for tourists from around the country and the world.
It was officially named International Exhibition of Arts Manufactures, and Products of the Soil & Mine. It attracted at least 10 million visitors from 35 countries with about 14,420 businesses
participating in the fair. Important inventions of this time period included the typewriter, sewing machine, and the telephone.
“I’m confident that we’re going to get a wonderful reception when this exhibit opens on Friday, April 3, 2020 at 10:00 am.,” said CEO Wellenbach. “I think it has tremendous potential for the museum,
for children and for the Parkside community. And we hope that people will come and experience the exhibit.”
The space in the basement of The Please Touch Museum where the Centennial Innovations Exhibit was created is 5,000 square feet of gallery and museum officials thought long and hard about how to bring that underused space to life and use it in the most effective and creative way possible.
Spending $1.75 million dollars on this transformation of the basement gallery space and completing the project on time and on budget was a great accomplishment for the museum and its staff who are now ready to show it off to the community.
CEO Trish Wellenbach was visibly excited when discussing the various things that visitors can be expected to see and experience.
“And now that this space (The new Centennial Innovations Exhibit) has been completed, it will be enriching and add to the museum’s appeal to our neighbors of the Parkside community,” said CEO Wellenbach. “And we hope to engage students up to fourth
(4th) grade. There will be a series of exhibits, elements and levels of engagement with children and families.”
“I think we’re going to have about 450,000 to 600,000 visitors a year,” adds CEO Wellenbach. “It is kind of our core number. But, the genesis of the exhibit is not to just increase visitorship; it’s really to increase engagement or the quality of the visitor experience.”
Getting families from the community of Parkside, other areas of Philadelphia and the surrounding counties to enjoy a day or weekend on the west side of Fairmount Park at 4231 Avenue of the Republic across from 42nd & Parkside Avenue will be the one of
the measures of the judging success of this new exhibit.
This new exhibit is a great opportunity to highlight another hidden treasure found only in Parkside. We hope this exhibit will be worth all the hard work Wellenbach and her staff have committed to bring this exhibit to our community.
Many African-Americans visiting the museum and those in the Parkside community have wondered and pondered the question of how diverse the exhibit will be and how the black experience during this post-slavery time period will be reflected in the exhibit.
“This is not a one and done for us,” says CEO Wellenbach. “Since I came here in 2015, we have been focusing on being a mirror to the city where we reside and the communities that we welcome everyday. Every child that walks in here, gets to see their family, their personal experiences reflected. And it is here and we seek to foster inclusion.”
“We have a tremendous amount of visitorship that represents lots of diversity, culturally, religiously, ethnically and socially,” declared CEO Wellenbach. “Even from the perspective of physical special needs and handicapped persons. And I think that this exhibit will continue to build on to the good work that we have done”.
There will be African-Americans and their contributions as part of the Centennial Innovations Exhibit as CEO Wellenbach has shown in one of the four models displayed during our interview on the exhibit. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas was said to have attended the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 but was not allowed to speak. Other contributions from prominent black contributors are Madam C.J. Walker, George Washington Carver, sculptor Edmonia Lewis and Mae Jemison.
The following are some basic historical facts about The Please Touch
Museum and the Memorial Hall :
The Please Touch Museum originally was created in 1976 and was part of the Natural Academy of the Science. Then it was moved to 21st Street near Cherry Street in 1983. And finally, it was moved to the Memorial Hall site in 2008.
Memorial Hall subsequently housed the Pennsylvania Museum of Industrial Arts (now called the Philadelphia Museum of Arts) and the building is part of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, A National Historic Landmark and part of the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
The neighborhood houses key entertainment and educational venues like Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, The Mann Music Center, The West Park Arts Festival, and the Philadelphia Zoo.