This is the second part of our interview with Arch Street Meetinghouse‘s Executive Director, Sean Connolly. The first interview was published two weeks ago. The current story deals with the Historic Arch Street Meetinghouse’s planning for a new outdoor interpretive exhibit.
Arch Street Meeting House has just finished an Exhibit Area Design Plan, what is that plan and what does it mean for the future of Arch Street?
We did just finish our Exhibit Area Design Plan!
This plan represents years of combined work from staff, consultants, Arch Street’s varying committees, volunteers and the Board of Trustees. It’s the final plan needed to move forward with a complete overhaul of interpretation at Historic Arch Street Meeting House and is by far the most exciting plan the Preservation Trust has embarked upon since its founding.
In this plan, we are reimagining how visitors to Arch Street will interact with the site, beginning from the moment they enter the grounds, and down to what individual stories they’ll see after a lengthy visit in the East Room. Basically, these plans identify where exhibits and interpretation will go and what those exhibits and interpretation will look like.
It has not been an easy plan to formulate since we have had to carefully explore what visitors to Arch Street want and need to see. We’ve also had to explore how to interact with school districts from around the Commonwealth and country.
All the while, we have had to weave in the story of the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia and make sure that their presence and influence on the building and ground’s history is expertly told.
Overall, these plans mean that we are about to be a much more capable organization with better visual tools that will appropriately share Quaker history with the world. These plans should make us a must-see destination for people who want to learn about the US, Philadelphia, or Quaker history.
What will it mean for Quakers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) to have these new exhibits at Arch Street? How can they connect with this project?
The planned exhibits will really highlight how important Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Philadelphia are in the history of Quakerism, and how important PYM still is to Quakers around the world. Just like Quakers from many countries make a pilgrimage to Britain Yearly Meeting, these new exhibits should make Arch Street Meeting House a must-see destination for Yearly Meetings the world over.
One of the goals of this project is to make people see themselves in our exhibits. This means that a personal connection to the history will be absolutely key to the success of what we plan. With that in mind, we are really going to be focusing on personal stories that took place at Arch Street or individual stories that have helped shape Quaker history.
That means making sure there is strong diversity in storytelling, and telling the histories of Black Quakers and activists from 1688 through to today will be central to this work. Who knows, you might even see pictures of yourself at a rally from the past couple of years represented in our exhibits.
Another way people can connect with this project is to reach out to us, share a story. We’re hoping to create a digital achieve of Quaker stories that will be accessible via our website and in our new exhibit.
What areas of the new exhibits are you most excited for, and are there any challenges that these new exhibits will present?
There is so much to be excited about related to this project, but I think what energizes me the most is being able to share stories of people who really inspire me. Stories like that of Benjamin Lay who stabbed a hollowed-out bible with an exploding pig’s bladder inside to show the yearly meeting that God would judge them for not condemning slavery. Or stories like Sarah and Angelina Grimke who sat at the back of Arch Street Meeting House with several Black Quakers to protest segregation within Quakerism.
These stories are inspiring but also present challenges by how they reinterpret the history of Quakerism. Luckily, historic sites across the country join us in exploring these human stories that have often been neglected. Our planned exhibits will bring them to the forefront and help us explore the legacy of Quakerism in new ways.
Some other challenges include being as minimalist as possible with new exhibit footprints so that we can maintain the pristine quality of the grounds and building while also adhering to modern museum standards for interpretation. It’s presented unique challenges in terms of design but has been really exciting to help solve these problems with new exhibit tools.
Two years from now, can you predict what new capabilities these exhibits will give Arch Street Meeting House?
Two years from now Arch Street should be finished with phase one. This includes all of the outside exhibits and interpretation and some work inside the building with several special revolving exhibits.
Once phase one is done, Arch Street will have the ability to attract more visitors from the street and have more programs on the grounds.
In 2019 over 4 million people visited Independence Hall, and several hundred thousand of those visitors walked the two blocks over to the Betsy Ross House, yet only 30,000 stopped to visit Arch Street. Our research shows that the burial ground wall is the number one reason for this. These new exhibits will provide key entry point signs, wayfinding, and interpretation that will spark curiosity and draw people on to the grounds.
Since these plans are phased, what will be accomplished in each phase?
Yes, we plan on doing these plans in two phases, phase one will focus on the burial ground and outside interpretation. Phase two focuses on the inside, with new exhibit spaces built in the East Room, new interactives in the lobby, new exhibits and displays for the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia in the reception room, and an artful paring down of exhibits in the West Room, to better focus visitors experience in Quaker reflection and worship.
Where should people go if they want to learn more about supporting this interesting work?