Small Museum of the Month: Philadelphia Public History Truck

This month’s museum: Philadelphia Public History Truck in Philadelphia, PA.

Community engagement is a necessity for any museum or historic home. Long-term sustainability requires connecting with new audiences regularly and building lasting relationships. For organizations focusing on history, connecting the public with the past in a relatable way can be a challenge, particularly as communities, their needs, and their interests change over time. So we can we do?

The Philadelphia Public History Truck (PPHT) has one answer to this question – go into these communities and assist the residents as they construct exhibits about their own local history. Share authority and do it on the terms of the people you want to reach. The PPHT partners with a local neighborhood association and volunteers in the community to build ties with its residents. After establishing relationship, it holds meetings to collect oral histories, objects, and art to be arranged by the community in an exhibition. PPHT drivers also conduct archival research to support the neighborhood’s narrative. By bringing the tools used to construct history to underserved areas, the PPHT empowers Philadelphians to share their story in their own words and connect it with other neighborhoods.

The PPHT is a mobile museum with a dedicated staff. It has a truck specially equipped to display exhibits. While other small museum or historic homes may be interested in community engagement, developing a project like this may seem beyond their scope. It is possible to put together an outreach project inspired by the successes of the Philadelphia Public History Truck while staying true to the mission of your organization. Sharing authority with the desired audience and building relationships through outreach are places to start.

As mentioned above, the PPHT initially partners with a neighborhood association. When connecting with new groups, begin by reaching out that community’s advocates. These individuals or organizations can familiarize your institution with the needs, interest, and history of their community, building a base understanding for your institution before you plan any projects. This approach also allows your institution time to introduce the advocate to your mission statement and work. The community advocates become intermediaries, a supporter for a future relationship between your institution and the community.

To build lasting relationships, both parties need a stake in each other’s interests. So have members of your staff volunteer in the community to deepen your organization’s understanding of that community. Talking to community members in this context allows you and your staff to hear about their needs through their own words. This could serve as a foundation for a future joint initiative. Together, you can discuss areas in which the mission of your organization can support the educational, programmatic, or outreach needs of that community.

The PPHT is a wonderful example of a nonprofit that builds relationships through shared authority. By developing an interest in the community first, the organization can accomplish its mission to empower Philadelphia’s communities through history. While your program may not ultimately be a mobile history truck, institutions across the country can learn and take inspiration from this model.

To learn more, please visit the Philadelphia Public History Truck’s website at, visit the PPHT Facebook page, or follow PPHT on Twitter @HistoryTruck.

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