PoliticalFest in Philadelphia

The local Host Committee for the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, which runs from July 25 to July 28, consciously draws on the city’s key role in prior American political events in using the tagline “Lets Make History Again” as part of its marketing campaign. DNC week also offers a chance for both conventioneers and the general public to learn about American political history through a series of seven exhibits around Philadelphia collectively called PoliticalFest, which runs from July 22 to July 27.  One of the seven exhibits will be staged in Hall F of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where delegates will meet throughout the week, but Politicalfest also has the potential to draw conventioneers to visit politically themed temporary exhibits alongside regular museum offerings at six other sites: the National Constitution Center, the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Heritage Center of the Union League of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the National Liberty Museum. Around the city, PoliticalFest offers the public a rare opportunity to participate in convention-related education and entertainment.

First staged in 2000 during the Republican National Convention, PoliticalFest sixteen years ago  was limited to 250,000 square feet at the Convention Center. In a C-SPAN interview that year,  Politicalfest 2000 executive producer Carol Fitzgerald described the event as “A World’s Fair of Politics.”  She gave credit to former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell for the genesis of the idea, which he based on the 1996 MLB Fanfest held around the All-Star game at Veterans Stadium.  This year’s PoliticalFest has many similarities, such as a “Whistle Stop Philadelphia” set-up to be staged at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent that will allow visitors to take their pictures with a life-sized replica of a traditional campaign train like the one used by Harry Truman in 1948. However, a key difference is that the 2016 program creates the opportunity for local museums to share in the festivities and attract visitors.  I reached out to my former colleagues at the Philadelphia History Museum to ask how they became involved in the PoliticalFest event, and Cindy Little, the museum’s historian, responded that such a partnership “is typical” and noted whenever such “large events come to town that museums are asked to participate.”  However, in many ways this event is anything but typical given the sizeable number of institutions involved, complex travel arrangements including dedicated Philly Phlash bus loops, and the creation of a PoliticalFest map to guide visitors to clusters of exhibit sites.

Each of the seven sites looks at a particular theme. “Politics and You” is the theme at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which will house two C-SPAN-created exhibits, including educational walls about the Electoral College and a traveling American Presidents exhibit with forty-three original oil paintings.  This exhibit also will include both an Oval Office replica sponsored by Facebook (similar to a display at the 2000 PoliticalFest) and an Air Force One fuselage replica of the airplane used by presidents from Kennedy to Reagan that is outfitted to appear as it did in the 1980s. The convention center exhibits will also include photographs highlighting the societal impacts of key political figures and an  “I Am Democracy Photo Mosaic” that will invite visitors to add their individual photos to a large digital mosaic of an American flag.  Offering experiential history, a Future Leaders Fun Zone will encourage a love of history for kids and a Voting through Time display will depict election booths of the past, present, and future.

The National Constitution Center, a venue specializing in American political history, is offering the temporary exhibit “Headed to the White House,” which launched in February and is set to run through November. The exhibit begins by delving into a series of transformative elections and the ways in which constitutional amendments have influenced the election process. Next, a section called “Join the Race” features an interactive speech coach and campaign message-crafting activity. In the next section, “Earn the Election,” visitors have the opportunity to create campaign stickers and to make choices to try to win a primary through a campaign manager interactive. Having covered the nomination process, the exhibit then allows visitors to explore the history of voting rights and voting methods in a section called “Win the Election,” where they also have the opportunity to create campaign commercials. Finally, the exhibit concludes with  the powers of the presidency and the experience of living in the White House. During the DNC week, the Main Stage at the National Constitution Center will also act as a hub for activities such as Political Trivia and Political Feud game shows as well as interviews with celebrities who have played the president.

“Presidential Archives” is the theme that will be explored at the Library Company of Philadelphia, which will also showcase examples of material culture memory popular in the nineteenth century as well as themed sections focused on women in politics and nineteenth-century African American political conventions.  The Library Company exhibit, which is drawn from artifacts in its archives, will include a “life mask” of Abraham Lincoln made in 1860 (which I learned from speaking with a Library Company staff member has been widely misreported as a “death mask”), another “life mask” of George Washington cast in 1785, and a lock of George Washington’s hair from the era when “hairwork” was a popular type of art. The Library Company will draw on its extensive collections and curatorial expertise to create exhibits on presidential libraries and display rare books, images, and original manuscripts pertaining to the founding of the United States.  In related programming, University of Oklahoma history professor Dr. Paul Gilje, author of several works on American maritime history and political culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is scheduled to offer a lecture, “The Democrats Win: The Election of 1800,” at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 26.

Next door to the Library Company, the theme at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania will be “Founding Documents,” and the display will include the first “Newport Printing” of the Declaration of Independence, which contains a famous misprint suggesting it was produced on June 13 rather than July 13, 1776.  Visitors also will see a draft of the Articles of Confederation, which served as the first form of government of the United States upon adoption by the Continental Congress on November 15,  1777, written by delegate John Dickinson, whose plantation is now a Delaware state-run museum just across the street from the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base. Other documents going on display will include the second manuscript draft of the United States Constitution, which was composed by James Wilson and circulated to the delegates of the Constitutional Convention on August 7, 1787, and a copy of the Constitution of the National Woman Suffrage Association, with a note written by Susan B. Anthony on May 17, 1874, to encourage another woman to become involved in the movement.

The DNC week display at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania will also feature artifacts such as several early examples of colonial currency, a lithograph of the Emancipation Proclamation featuring an image of Abraham Lincoln, and a photo of Barbara Gittings, the LGBT civil rights pioneer who organized the first of what became the Annual Reminder Day protests held at Independence Hall every July 4 between 1965 and 1969.  Extending the reach of the PoliticalFest exhibits, the HSP staff has been  blogging about some of the documents included in the exhibit, which are normally kept “behind no less than five sets of locks – both electronic and analog, including a nineteenth-century bank vault,” according to the initial post in this series.

The PoliticalFest theme explored at the Philadelphia History Museum is “Philadelphia and the Presidency,” reflecting the museum’s focus on making local connections to broader histories and telling inclusive stories. Among the elements of the museum’s PoliticalFest exhibit are political reporting from the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s oldest historically black newspaper, as well as interviews with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama published in 2008 by the Philadelphia Gay News.  As in the museum’s community gallery, currently featuring a partnership-produced exhibit about Philadelphia’s Fabric Row, the staff reached out to local collectors to create a Philadelphia Memorabilia Perspective exhibit of convention history. The staff at the Philadelphia History Museum also helped to curate the PoliticalFest display to be held at the Heritage Center of the Union League of Philadelphia.

The Heritage Center exhibit is “Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia,” featuring the eleven conventions that took place in the city from the 1848 Whig Convention that led to the nomination of Zachary Taylor to the 2000 Republican Convention that nominated George W. Bush. The exhibit includes the 1856 Know-Nothing convention and 1948, when Democrats nominated Harry Truman, Republicans chose Thomas Dewey, and Progressives picked Henry Wallace, all in Philadelphia. At the National Liberty Museum  a collection of White House China will serves as the centerpiece for the theme “First Families.” The displays will include a video about the First Ladies and a related exhibit about their dresses, National Geographic photos of first families and their pets, and a display of presidential footwear.

While the 2016 Democratic National Convention takes place at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia, PoliticalFest is a chance to learn political history in a non-partisan environment. By treating the DNC week as a non-partisan political holiday, the PoliticalFest partners are making an effort during a divisive election year to remind the nation of the vital importance of recognizing our shared heritage.

Tickets: A single $15 ticket ($5 for students/seniors and free for veterans/conventioneers) provides six days of admission to all seven exhibit locations as well as the regular displays at the six museums sites.  Click here for additional information.

About

Doctoral Student in American and Public History at Temple University. Currently holds a BA in History and Anthropology from the University of Virginia and a MA in American Studies from the University of Iowa. Adjunct Professor of Writing Arts at the Richard Stockton College of NJ and a Part Time Lecturer on Political Science with Rutgers-Camden. His research focuses on American Public Memory of the Korean War. Has guided tours for museums, trolleys, candy factories, and elephants.

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