Collin Kawan-Hemler ’22 Brings the Archives to the Public

HSP’s rooftop terrace where I eat lunch every
day when there hasn’t been a severe storm
warning for the entire East Coast.

My name’s Collin, and I’m at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as the Philly Partners intern from the Hurford Center for the summer. Over a ten week internship, I am working with the Senior Director of Programs and Services, Beth Twiss Houting, who’s been at the Society for almost ten years. She’s been a key resource so far during my internship, mostly because Beth is the entire Programs and Services department at HSP. In an important lesson about the non-profit museum/cultural institution world, the Historical Society saw 30% of its staff laid off in April. Many of the projects that had been in the works under the Programs and Services team are now in limbo. Four other summer interns and I have been helping pave the way to successful programming for the Fall 2019 season and beyond.

View of a Puerto Rican Day Parade from the Ramonita and Jose Rivera photo collection. The notoriously brutal Mayor Frank Rizzo stands waving in the center.

More specifically, my main task for this summer is assisting with the culmination of a year long public history project Neighbors, Exploring 200 Years of Puerto Rican History in Philadelphia (Vecinos: Explorando 200 años de Historia Puertorriqueña en Filadelfia). I am proud to help with this project especially because it has been community-driven from the beginning. Last year, in a series of programming called Audience Embedded, regular people from the Puerto Rican Philly community became historians. They worked together to organize and curate the presentation of the rich archives of both HSP and Taller Puertorriqueño, a landmark arts and culture center in North Philly. After deciding which archival materials to bring forward, the group requested that a open-access website centered on a timeline of Puerto Rican Philly be designed. The website which is built on the Omeka platform seeks to situate the Puerto Rican experience as one of many immigrant experiences in Philadelphia’s 330 plus year history. My role in preparing the website for its launch in the fall will be writing short essays about the themes of what makes a neighborhood and creating social media promotion content.

I got to handle this book from 1682 where English Quakers encouraged their Friends to settle in present-day New Jersey and Pennsylvania. While it’s owned by HSP, the book is held next door at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

In the first month I have not been able to work that much on this project. Instead I’ve been assisting Beth with various educational programming. The most enjoyable thing I’ve done so far was putting together archival materials for a group of Philadelphia undergrad and graduate students who are researching that the city’s post-World War II history. It was my first experience actually delving into archives (mysterious, I know). I had to think creatively of what search terms I’d use on HSP’s digital catalog to identify appropriate materials. One afternoon I filled out call slips and had each document or photo series brought to me from the stacks. I felt like a real historian™ reading through notes of nurses visiting residents at a poor widow’s home from the 1970s and wearing gloves to examine early 20th century prints of trolleys from the old Philadelphia Rapid Transit company. I remember turning through a 1957 student publication from the William Sayre School in Cobbs Creek. The advice columns and student writings about teenage angst felt relatable even if everyone was crazy about Elvis and not Lizzo.

 Working in Center City every day is everything I had hoped it would be. After work I’m free to check out any music or art events happening in the city. Two weeks ago I stood at City Hall while city officials and community members celebrated raising Philadelphia’s original pride flag which has black and brown stripes to specifically include POC queer folks. It’s days like these that make me proud to be going to school in this area. As a prospective history major, I feel especially lucky now that I’m familiar with how to access the largest historical archives in the region. I hope to be able to use HSP’s resources for future research and encourage other students to do so too!

Written by Collin Kawan-Hemler ’22, undeclared

Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19