Philadelphia’s Grand Army of the Republic Museum
An exceptionally smart friend of mine shared an interesting article with me the other day. It was all about eccentricity giving way to uniformity in the world of art museums. So it seems that some of the most unique museums around the country are – shall we say – enhancing their identities. The effort is on one hand, good for revenue, but on the other, an unfortunate downgrade to conformity. The museum experience, the author suggested, was reduced to a check on the tourist’s to-do list.
It got me thinking about my favorite museum in the whole world – the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Philadelphia. I did a bit of research there when I was in grad school. The museum – located in a less than desirable neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia – is a three story brick house built by Dr. John Ruan in 1796. For the longest time, the building was home to the GAR post #2 of Philadelphia and the GAR Department of Pennsylvania. Back in the heyday of Civil War commemoration – the good veterans of Philly took especial care in collecting all kinds of artifacts. They kept and attempted preservation of everything from stuffed Civil War era eagles to a cloth stained with Lincoln’s blood. And tons of personal and official papers – tons.
The sad thing is, the museum is in a state of disarray. When I was there a few years back, I found evidence of roosting pigeons in archival materials and a USCT flag just laying exposed on a table. They are in desperate need of money, help, and organization. But what if they get it? In all honesty I am afraid of what might happen.
Once upon a time I thought what a grand idea it would be to spearhead a campaign (with the help of people who knew how to do these sorts of things) to rebuild the GAR Museum – to relocate it to a nice neighborhood and give it that “state of the art” look and feel. Not so much any more. Oh sure – I would love to someday help raise the money to further preserve the museum’s artifacts, catalog its holdings, and create some kind of searchable user-friendly database for researchers and students.
But I would never move nor change the feel of the place. As a grad student, I had not fully appreciated my visits – I just got what I needed and felt bad that the place was in such shape. But in retrospect and with an even greater nostalgic admiration for all things veteran related, I can see that on an experiential level – my trips to the Ruan House added clarity and perhaps even credibility to my work.
There is a lot to be said for researching in a GAR meeting hall that still pretty much looks like a GAR meeting hall. Hell, the chairs are still set up and the Post colors are in place. When the time is right, I am on board to make something happen at the museum – but not at the expense of the experience.