Arch Street Meeting House Preservation Trust preserves, operates and interprets the meetinghouse and grounds which will serve to increase public understanding of the impact and continued relevance of Quakers and Quaker history. Executive Director, Sean Connolly talks to us about his work at the historic Meeting House.
You’re new to this leadership role as educator, museum curator, historian and the manager of an important tourist site; what first drew you to this job at historic Arch Street Meeting House?
I’ve been at a real crossroads in my career for several years. I’ve been looking for an organization to lead that fits with my morals, an institution that is on the cusp of expansion and a historic site that is quintessentially Philadelphian. Finding the opportunity to work at Historic Arch Street Meeting House has been remarkable because it met all of those personal goals.
I also already had a deep history with the Arch Street Meeting House. For years I had been working with the guides at Arch Street to help facilitate tours from Historic Philadelphia. Returning to Arch Street in this new capacity gives me the opportunity to continue to make those connections with other historic sites in Philadelphia and help bring Arch Street Meeting House to life.
Everyone says there are remarkable stories and important Philadelphia and Quaker history at Arch Street. Tell us what most surprised you when you started.
Luckily, I already knew a lot of the basic history of Arch Street Meeting House. But it’s finding the small stories that relate to Arch Street that are the most surprising and exciting. I’ve been privileged to be able to interview several people about the more contemporary history of Arch Street Meeting House over the past several months.
Certainly, one of the most memorable moments has been interviewing Councilperson Curtis Jones for some background information on our upcoming exhibits. Our conversation quickly went down a long and fascinating rabbit hole relating to his experiences with Quakers in the 70s.
He told me about coming to Arch Street and meeting Quakers who helped him evaluate his choices and get involved in politics. For a young Black man growing up in Philadelphia at that time, the acceptance he experienced from Quakers was really important for him.
Hearing his personal testimony was special and helps remind me how important places like Arch Street can be, not just for Quakers, but for people all over the country.
You’re coming up on six months in your new role. In reflecting on this time what have been some of your challenges and what do you see as successes?
These past six months have certainly shown me how quickly time flies. One of the biggest challenges has of course been the pandemic.
Arch Street is such an important stop for school groups and seeing those tours disappear has certainly been challenging for the site, but also personally for the staff. So much of what the staff has done in the past has been about helping to facilitate in-person field trips. However, I am so proud of how the staff quickly pivoted and we have had some big successes in the past few months as a result of this pivot.
By reimagining several grants and donations we are putting the final touches on a Virtual Field Trip for students. This will give us a lasting asset for engaging students from around the country and the world.
We’ve also been successful in bringing in some key staffing grants which allowed us to stabilize staffing during the pandemic and actually expand, we’re about to hire a new staff member later this month.
Four years from now, how do you see Historic Arch Street Meetinghouse ‘coming into its own’?
Historic Arch Street Meetinghouse has been poised to position itself as one of the must-see sites in Philadelphia. As we wrap up our Exhibit Area Design Plan this will propel us into a new era at Arch Street. Easy wayfinding and outdoor exhibits will open up the site for visitors to explore. This in turn will drive visitorship inside and increase field trip opportunities.
My hope is that with more regular hours, a more informed visitor experience, and an expansion of events Historic Arch Street Meeting House will become a staple for all visitors to Philadelphia.
The pandemic has impacted all of us, with Covid 19 in mind what programs and projects can people expect from Arch Street in the next year and how will visitors be learning about Arch Street from a distance?
The pandemic will certainly continue to affect Arch Street in the short term, but it’s not slowing us down. We have regularly scheduled virtual programs every few weeks and we will open again to the public Thursday-Sunday starting the first week of March.
This hybrid model allows us to continue to offer virtual programming while also facilitating socially distanced tours of the grounds and Meeting House. We will also start offering exclusive programming, both in person and virtually, over the next year to those who receive our e-newsletter.
The largest project people can expect to see from us in the next year is for work to begin on the Phase One of the Exhibit Area Design Plan. This will introduce new outdoor exhibits so that people can learn about Arch Street even when we are closed. Signage will introduce the site to curious passersby who might have lived in Old City for years but never wandered in.
Most Executive Directors have to wait years to begin moving forward with bold, new plans like this, so it’s thrilling to be able to move them forward so soon!
Where should people go if they want to learn more about supporting this interesting work?
We have a website (https://www.historicasmh.org/) and there are ways to engage there. Or contact me directly at SConnolly@HistoricASMH.org.
Learn more about the Phase One of the Exhibit Area Design Plan in our follow up story in two weeks!