PhilaPlace project strengthens HSP archival work

Recently the Historical Society of Pennsylvania acquired a small collection called the Pisano and Siciliano Families Papers. Through photographs, vital records, family histories, and other materials, this collection documents two Italian families whose members came to the United States in the early 1900s and settled in South Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. A highlight of the collection is the handwritten poetry of Antonio Nicola Pisano (1894-1979). Mr. Pisano, who immigrated to the U.S. at age sixteen and worked mainly as a shoemaker, had only three years of formal schooling but loved learning. He traveled from house to house, reading his poems to friends and neighbors, sometimes accompanied by musicians. Pisano was also an actor, director, and playwright, and founded a local theater troupe called the Philadelphia Filodramatic Circle Gasperinese. The collection includes several handwritten plays that were probably performed by the group.

Portrait of the Filodramatic Circle Gasperinese, in costume for the
“Passion Play of Christ,” 1931

The Pisano and Siciliano Families Papers were donated to HSP by Donna Meidt, Antonio Pisano’s granddaughter, who also contributed funds to process the collection through HSP’s Adopt-a-Collection program. One of the notable things about this donation is that Donna Meidt came to us through the PhilaPlace project.

As many readers of this blog may know, PhilaPlace is a neighborhood history and culture project, sponsored by HSP in collaboration with several other institutions and community groups. The project, which has sparked enthusiastic interest, includes a website where Philadelphians can share their experiences and memories through photos, documents, essays, and oral history recordings. (See for example, Donna Meidt’s contributions about her great-grandmother and grandfather.) The site also features interactive maps, podcast tours, K-12 lesson plans for teachers, and a blog. Beyond the website, PhilaPlace encompasses public events, teacher workshops, trolley tours, exhibits, and printed neighborhood guides.

Playbill for the “The Passion Play of Christ” presented by the
Filodramatic Circle Gasperinese, 1931

PhilaPlace performs an important community outreach role for HSP as a whole, including the Archives Department. We do not have enough staff to actively seek out collection donations, but have to rely on those that are offered to us. PhilaPlace helps to fill that gap by soliciting stories and images for its website, and more broadly by building relationships with community members and organizations. After making their histories available for use on the PhilaPlace website, sometimes people also become interested in donating their original materials to HSP’s permanent collections. (The reverse is also true: If people approach me about donating collections related to the neighborhoods PhilaPlace is focusing on, I try to also put them in touch with PhilaPlace staff.)

PhilaPlace’s emphasis on collaboration and developing community relationships reflects Project Director Joan Saverino’s background as a folklorist, as well as the hard work she and Project Coordinator Melissa Mandell have put in over the past three years. The project has done a great deal to bring HSP favorable publicity and community goodwill. It has also benefited HSP’s collections work in more specific ways, such as providing much of the impetus to develop a full-fledged collection digitization program. And recently, when I needed an oral history release form to send to a collection donor, I was able to adapt one that was created for the PhilaPlace project.

HSP is currently exploring ways that we can more closely integrate PhilaPlace with HSP’s processing, conservation, and digitization of collections, with a shared emphasis on community networking and collaboration.


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