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Philadelphia museum truck drives home local history, focusing on residents and neighborhoods

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PHILADELPHIA — Last year, Erin Bernard was walking past a row of food trucks near Temple University when inspiration struck.

"I was like, 'Wouldn't it be great if there was a museum on a truck?'" said Bernard, a graduate student in public history. And not just one that showed up at your doorstep — "but that you helped make what was on it?"

With that one big idea — and lots of legwork — Bernard created the Philadelphia Public History Truck, a — ahem — vehicle for documenting the untold stories of Philadelphia residents and communities, one neighborhood at a time. The work is so promising it may soon become part of Temple's public-history master's curriculum, and may even serve as a model for similar projects around the country.

But first, the project's inaugural exhibition, focused on East Kensington, opens at Little Berlin, a space at 2430 Coral St. Called "Manufacturing Fire" — the second anniversary of the neighborhood's deadly Thomas Buck Hosiery mill fire is April 9 — it explores two forces that have shaped this neighborhood: the threat of factory fires, and the work of fiery activists.

It was that activist force that brought Bernard's project to East Kensington in the first place. She had contacted neighborhood associations around the city — but Jeff Carpineta, who was president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association at the time, was the quickest to respond, offering not only his support, but also his truck. (The decommissioned ice cream truck has also been used for neighborhood cleanups, indie music tours, political demonstrations, art installations, and, recently, as a candlelit "Victorian letter-writing cabin.")

Bernard also found partners in the Kensington Community Food Co-op, the Little Berlin artist community, and a soup kitchen on Kensington Avenue called St. Francis Inn, where she served meals and listened to stories.

Since the fall, Bernard has been working with those partners to organize community events, like a history block party, to engage residents. At the events, attendees could write down their first memories of the neighborhood and pin them to a "memory map," submit questions for Bernard to research, donate "objects of memory," or sit down for extended oral history interviews.

"I didn't want it to be the type of museum where people come in and experience it based on what curators have thought was important," she said. "It's about what the people are worried about, and what they want to talk about."

And what they were worried about was fires: the deadly 2012 blaze, the disastrous fire at the nearby Cavco window factory in 2010, and the series of fires that leveled the Providence Dye Works, which used to occupy the two blocks in between. And they discussed buildings currently vacant or in disrepair that they still worry could go up in flames.

In her research, Bernard found the same concerns were relevant decades ago. She unearthed a set of bylaws from an 1830s convention between the volunteer firefighters of Northern Liberties and Kensington to quell rioting at fire scenes. And she found plenty of evidence of activism, like the story of a white activist, Dorothy Anderson, and a black one, Mary Rouse, from opposite sides of Kensington Avenue, who came together to lobby the city despite racial tensions at the time.

"It's a lot of hard history," Carpineta said, "and it's often overlooked."

He thinks it's important that even the difficult stories be preserved.

Take lifelong resident Buddy Camp, 50, a laid-off sheet-metal worker who has watched the neighborhood's transformation from his front steps. He lives across from a huge warehouse that was once part of the area's booming manufacturing sector that has been vacant for years. Camp remembers when kids on the block used its parking lot as a playground. Now, some worry it could be the next to go up in flames.

He also lives four blocks from the Buck fire scene. "I saw it from my back window when it happened," he said. Embers drifted onto rooftops nearby.

In the face of all that, Carpineta sees the history truck as a binding force. "I'm a big believer that understanding the histories that go unwritten is one of the essential ingredients in being able to heal a neighborhood, and also create togetherness between newer people and the people that have been there for generations," he said.

The "Manufacturing Fire" exhibit will be on view through April 26. Then Bernard will take a condensed version on the truck through May and June, stopping outside schools around the city to share with students.

After that, she'll head to North Philadelphia to teach children at Treehouse Books to take histories from neighbors. She will also work with Philadelphia Urban Creators and with artists at the Window Factory. In 2015, Bernard will focus on the Puerto Rican community around Fifth and Lehigh.

And after that? Seth Bruggeman, who runs Temple's Center for Public History, hopes that by then the truck might be incorporated into the center's curriculum.

He said there was a history of mobile museums in Philadelphia, including a short-lived endeavor called the History Mobile in the 1980s.

Lately, there's been renewed interest, resulting in pop-up museums, he said, like Eastern State Penitentiary's. "But none, I would argue, are as intellectually robust as Erin's model, or as powerfully committed to building connections across communities."

Bruggeman does wonder how the project can be brought under Temple's umbrella — without all that institutional weight squeezing the fun out of it.

But Bernard thinks it can be done. Temple Urban Archives has already agreed to include the oral histories in its special collections, along with documentation of the entire history-truck process.

"So many voices are going to be in those archives that wouldn't otherwise be there," she said. "As somebody who cares a lot about what's missing and who's silent when I go to look something up, I hope that I'm providing those voices for future historians — or at least turning the volume up."


Online:

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com

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