Berks History Center Transfers Rare Artifact to Rightful Home in Chester County, PA

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(Right) Ellen E. Endslow, Director of Collections/Curator at Chester County Historical Society accepting the Mendenhall Box from (left) Bradley K. Smith, Curator at the Berks History Center.

The Berks History Center (BHC) is pleased to announce the transfer of a rare artifact, a wooden strongbox or chest, to the care of the Chester County Historical Society on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

The artifact, which was designed to hold and protect important papers, is particularly unique due to its age and well documented history. While BHC staff members knew of the chest’s existence and were aware of a 1684 date carved on its face, it was only during the BHC’s 2016-2017 collections management initiative that its full history and significance came to light.

The collections management initiative was an undertaking designed to improve artifact related record-keeping through a process of inventory and historical research. PA Museums, Pennsylvania’s state-wide Museum Association, awarded the BHC with a 2018 Institutional Achievement Award in recognition of the initiative’s success.

 

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The chest belonged to Benjamin Mendenhall of Concord, a township of Chester County until the formation of Delaware County in 1789. The earliest known historical text that discusses Benjamin Mendenhall is the 1862 publication History of Delaware County, by George Smith. Smith indicates that Mendenhall was a wheelwright who emigrated from the English town of Mildenhall in 1686 (contemporary research shows that Mendenhall attended a Philadelphia wedding on November 15, 1684, so he clearly arrived in Pennsylvania sometime prior to that date).

Numerous sources indicate that he served one term in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and was an active member of the Chichester/Concord Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends. Benjamin Mendenhall was married in 1698 to Ann Pennel and they had a large family; one of their daughters married the famed botanist, John Bartram on October 11, 1729. The Mendenhalls are also the sixth-great grandparents of U.S. President, Richard Nixon.

The Mendenhall chest remained with family members living in Chester or Delaware County until 1872, when the donor-to-be, Stephen Merideth, moved from Pughtown, Chester County to Reading, Pennsylvania. According to the BHC’s accession records, Meredith donated the small chest to the Historical Society of Berks County on September 13, 1921.

While the reasons for Merideth’s donation to the BHC are unknown, the artifact holds significant historical value to Chester County, not only in the unique age and quality of the box, but also in its well documented provenance as a cherished family heirloom.

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A caption with the photograph says “photo by Goldman, Reading, Pa”. This presumably refers to William I. Goldman (1856-1922), who first appears as a photographer in the 1877-78 edition of The City Directory of Reading, PA and continued in the photography business until his death in 1922

In 1897, teenager Earl Merideth, son of the chest’s eventual donor, wrote: “I am a profound admirer of ancestral relics, of which I have a great one, namely the money box, about 10” x 8” x 6” of Benjamin Mendenhall. On it are carvings by his own hand, artistic in nature, together with ‘B. 1684 M.’ on the front of box. The old lock though broken still clings to it. It is a wonderful old box, and I may safely say that it bids fair to outlive twice or thrice as many generations as it has in the past. I would not part with it for a great deal. It is made of hickory wood and firmly put together.”

Although the chest has been in BHC collection for nearly 100 years, the artifact has little connection to Berks County beyond the fact that its last private owner lived in close proximity to the museum’s headquarters. After careful research and consideration by the BHC Curator and Museum Committee, the BHC decided to deaccession the artifact from its collection. The BHC offered the chest in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of its history is connected with communities and families of Chester County.

As explained by BHC Executive Director, Sime Bertolet, “after careful deliberation, we concluded that the chest belongs in Chester County, the ancestral home of the Mendenhall family, and we are delighted that the Historical Society of Chester County agreed with this assessment.”

Ellen E. Endslow, Director of Collections/Curator at Chester County Historical Society, said, “the Chester County Historical Society is thrilled to have this (artifact) in the collection. This is part of what good collections management is about in the museum profession. The fact that Brad did such an excellent job researching the item and realizing that it is such an important part of Chester County’s history that it belongs in Chester County is a very professional way to treat an important object like this.”

The BHC transferred the artifact to the care of the Historical Society of Chester County on Wednesday, January 20, 2019.

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Berks History Center Acquires New Painting by Famous Berks County Artist, Ben Austrian

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The Berks History Center (BHC) is pleased to announce a new acquisition, “Puppy Watching Chicks with Worm,” oil on canvas by Ben Austrian.

The acquisition was made possible with a gift from the Spinnaker Foundation, which focuses on the arts, athletics, education and health with an emphasis on educating children, encouraging philanthropic activities and improving the local community. Most notably, the Spinnaker Foundation has helped to promote the preservation and collecting of Berks County art by Berks County artists.

With the support of the Spinnaker Foundation, “Puppy Watching Chicks with Worm” was purchased from Greshville Antiques in December, 2018 and is now on display in the BHC museum. The 15”x20” gold leaf framed painting (copyright 1906) depicts a brown and white puppy watching two chicks fight over a worm.

Ben Austrian was an American painter best known for his realistic portrayals of farmyard life. Much of his subject matter focused on hens and their chicks, cats, dogs, horses, and game. Born on November 22, 1870 in Reading, PA, Austrian was largely self-taught. His work was influenced by other well-known Berks County artists including Federick A. Spang.  Austrian is best known as the painter of the famous Bon Ami chicks.

With this new addition, the BHC has a total of nine Ben Austrian paintings its collections. However, the subject matter is quite varied. Other Austrian works in the BHC collection include: “Still Life,” “Trees, Grass & Meadow,” a portrait of “John Misler,” “The Stand Off Terrier with Chick,” “Chicks with Basket,’ “Rooster & Hens,” and two “Hanging Game” paintings.

“Puppy Watching Chicks with Worm” is a particularly charming addition to the BHC’s collections of Ben Austrian’s work and epitomizes the subject matter for which this Berks County artist is famous. This painting, along with a number of Austrians, are now on display in the BHC Museum, open Tuesday-Friday, 10AM-3PM, and Saturday 9AM-3PM.

Good Feelings Wrapped Up in Bao

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For second generation Berks Countian, Vi Phan, Berks County Foodways are more than pretzels and pot pie. In addition to local favorites like potato filling and red beet eggs, Vi’s family’s Berks County culinary traditions include a rich inheritance of Vietnamese cuisine.

Banh bao generally isn’t made for a holiday or special time of year. You can buy it on the street any day of the week in Vietnam. However, not many people make it at home because preparing and cooking banh bao is a labor of love! So for Vi’s family, banh bao is a special treat reserved for family gatherings.

“When I was young, we only made banh bao when family from out-of-state would get together (about twice a year). It was too labor intensive otherwise. As time went on and more people left, my mother had less help. She still wanted to make banh bao on her own, so I started getting more involved. As a child, I would help cut the extra ingredients and assemble the buns, but now I’m in charge of making the dough too. I make the dough while my mom mixes the filling. I still have to master the filling part but I’m too busy making the dough! I enjoy making it and cherish the special bonding time I have with my mom when we do. It’s a lot of good feelings wrapped up into such a small bao.”

Banh bao is a sweet and savory Vietnamese bun made with seasoned pork or chicken, onions, eggs, mushrooms and vegetables. Banh bao often has Chinese sausage and a portion of a hard-boiled egg inside. All of the ingredients are prepared and assembled into a sweetened dough. For Vi and her family, chopping the vegetables; mixing and seasoning the meat; boiling, peeling and slicing the eggs; and preparing and proportioning the dough can take up to 8 hours of work. Once all of the ingredients are prepared, the fillings are lined up on a table and carefully assembled into small pockets of dough. The buns are sealed with a special twisting motion that takes some skill and time to master. The artfully-made buns are then steamed for about 15 minutes.

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Vi recalls that, “every time we make this, my mom and aunts would look to see if any of the baos burst open on top. If they find one, they always say “it’s smiling!” and then they giggle EVERY TIME.”

“I know that I say “This is one of my favorite foods” to just about every Vietnamese dish my mom makes, but a fresh banh bao is really up there on the list. The fluffiness, ever-so-slight sweetness of the dough soaked with the juices from the pork filling makes my mouth water just thinking about it. You happily munch away and suddenly you hit the jackpot, Chinese sausage! It takes the flavor profile to a whole new level. Man, I love banh bao. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a fresh one, you know what I’m talking about.”

This article was written as part of the Berks History Center’s 2018 Berks County Foodways Project. Click here to learn more about Berks County Foodways. 

Why Berks History Matters to Me: A Letter from a Former Intern

 

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Dear Fellow Members and Friends of the Berks History Center,

Admiration. Curiosity. Gratitude. These are the feelings that capture the essence of my experience with the Berks History Center. In the fall of 2016, I had the pleasure of working alongside seasoned museum professionals at the Berks History Center (BHC) museum. As a junior at Albright College, I interned at the BHC and helped with their collections management initiative, which involved inventorying more than 28,000 items in the collection. From textiles to furniture, to posters and machinery, my eyes were exposed to more curiosities than I ever could have imagined. Some days I felt like Abigail Chase from the film National Treasure, holding the Declaration of Independence and eager to uncover the detailed history woven into its fabrication.

Despite being a South Jersey native, I developed a sincere admiration for the Berks County artifacts we inventoried. Each had a place in the museum and I wanted to know how and why all of these items were collected, and how they contributed to preserving the legacy of Berks County.

On one of my first days at the museum, I learned about the mystery of the Chippendale chairs. There was a rumor that the chairs belonged to the former Pennsylvania governor, Joseph Hiester. My supervisor, BHC Curator Brad Smith, said that he wanted to find out if the legend was true. So we began our quest with several visits to the BHC Research Library and the Berks County Courthouse.

It was from those visits that we discovered the legend was true!

Thanks to the curiosity of our team, we located the original acquisition documentation for the chairs, which traced the lineage to the former governor. I felt like a museum detective and only wanted to explore more mysteries!

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Photo: Mackenzie inventorying items in the BHC Museum Collection.

After getting a taste of curatorial research, my admiration for Berks County history grew exponentially. I wanted to know things like: why the collection held so many fire company artifacts; how a Conestoga wagon got into the basement; and how so many valuable things had been acquired.

I discovered the answers to these questions and more through persistent research and constant support from the BHC’s talented and supportive staff.

As more information was uncovered, I realized that I was beginning to help preserve the legacy of Berks County. It wasn’t until my last few weeks at the BHC that I noticed how much gratitude I felt for the collection, its keepers and its scholars.

In the winter of 2017, Brad asked me and fellow intern, Erin Benz, to present our findings at a community event at the BHC. Through this experience I understood that I had the potential to grow as a museum professional.

After presenting some of my favorite paintings from the collection, I was told by an attendee that one of the works was improperly labeled. I was grateful to this community member because I learned that historical organizations like the BHC rely on input from the local community to accurately preserve and interpret local history.

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Photo: (left to right) BHC Intern, Erin Benz; BHC Curator, Brad Smith, BHC Intern, Mackenzie Tansey; Executive Director, Sime Bertolet

When I left my internship at the BHC, I knew it wouldn’t be a final farewell.

The BHC is a place I admire for both its collection of artifacts and its dedicated staff and volunteers. It’s also a place where curiosity is welcomed and shared among scholars and a place I’m grateful for because it’s where I discovered my passion for collections management.

The BHC has the power to ignite a fire of curiosity in community members of all ages and backgrounds. That fire found its way into the heart of this Albright Lion from New Jersey and I believe it can touch the hearts and minds of many more to come!

This year I’m giving back to the place that supported me by making a $100 donation.

Please join me today and share your gratitude to the BHC by donating any amount you can to support this vital community treasure. Click here to donate online or you can mail your support to 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

The BHC continues to find innovative ways to preserve history while educating and inspiring the citizens of Berks County and beyond. Your strong financial support is vital to ensuring that it can continue to do just that. Thank you for your help.

With gratitude,

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Mackenzie Tansey
2016 Berks History Center Intern

Berks History Center to Open 100 Year Old Time Capsule on the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice

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The Berks History Center will commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day on November 10, 2018 with World War I & Berks, a day of programs and events, including a time capsule opening at the Berks History Center, located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

Please join us for a day of education and entertainment as we commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War I. The day will begin with two consecutive programs that explore the challenges and triumphs of the Great War through the eyes of a local WWI soldier with presentations by William Richardson as he reads and interprets his father’s WWI diaries. From the Frontlines: Diary of a WWI Soldier – Part I will begin at 10:00AM and will be followed by Part II at 12:30PM.

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Photo: William Emanuel Richardson, front row, far left, without a hat, with 313 Machine Gun Battalion, shipboard on the Mercury, on his way to France in 1918. The officer sitting next to him, Lt. Parsons was killed in the Meuse Argonne fighting. From William F. Richardson.

Presenter, William F. Richardson is the son of William Emanuel Richardson, who served in the Great War. Richardson will read and interpret his father’s journal entries in a dramatic presentation that demonstrates the realities of the WWI experience. Richardson is a Berks County native and now lives in Golden, CO. Richardson’s father, William Emanuel Richardson, was born in Berks County in 1886. William’s extensive diaries and writings during this period reveal a profound patriotism, a hopeful idealism, and a keen understanding of the context and background of events as they unfolded. They also reveal a young man’s search for both adventure, and romance.

Admission to From the Frontlines: Diary of a WWI Soldier – Parts I & II is $5.00 for members and veterans and $8.00 for non-members. Both programs are included in the admission price.

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1918 Time Capsule that will be opened on November 10, 2018

At 6:00pm the Berks History Center will reveal the contents of a 1918 Time Capsule during an unveiling ceremony. The Time Capsule Opening Ceremony is free to the public.

The day will conclude with a special performance by the Reading Choral Society. The Reading Choral Society’s World War I & Berks Concert begins at 7:30pm in the Berks History Center Connor Auditorium. The concert will pay homage to Reading’s Liberty Chorus, which was founded in 1918, and will feature music popular during the era of the Great War.

Tickets for Reading Choral Society’s World War I & Berks Concert are $5.00 for member and veterans and $8.00 for non-members. Tickets must be purchased in advance and do not include admission to From the Frontlines: Diary of a WWI Soldier – Part I & II. Call 610-375-4375 to purchase tickets.

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Launched in November 2017, the World War I & Berks project, was a year-long commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of World War I that examined Berks County’s contributions to the Great War and the effects the war had on our local community. The World War I & Berks exhibit, located in the Berks History Center’s Palmer Gallery, tells how Reading and Berks County responded to the nation’s call to arms with a remarkable eagerness to serve and unwavering patriotic displays. Additional stories about World War I were shared throughout the year on the Berks History Center’s blog and social media. Program attendees are invited to tour the World War I & Berks exhibit along with all of the other galleries and exhibits in the museum.

The Phenomenon of the Liberty Chorus

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Bandshell Pavillion in City Park, c. 1918, BHC Research Library Collection

The Great War was a constant exercise in patriotism for the citizens of Reading and Berks County. Citizens were asked to support the war effort through Liberty Loan drives, which were followed by Red Cross drives and ongoing petitions to purchase War Savings Stamps. Meanwhile, the YMCA and YWCA required more young men and women to do their part in the name of victory for the soldiers fighting overseas. Amidst all these demands for local citizens to fulfill their patriotic duties, leaders in Berks worked tirelessly to keep the spirit of patriotism alive in Berks County. And thus, the Liberty Chorus was born.

On July 17, 1918 a meeting was held in the Chamber of Commerce to organize committees and appoint lieutenants to arrange community sings throughout the summer. The meeting consisted of leading musical representatives from the Reading Rotary, the Penn Wheelmen, the Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and other musical organizations.  The lieutenant’s role was to recruit choir singers and musicians to create a community singing chorus to lead the community in popular war songs. They believed a singing community would never know the burdens of war.

Reading had a reputation for its excellent singers and strong church choirs. Reading also had a prize-winning choral society under the direction of Edward Berg. With this rich history in organized singing, the Liberty Chorus was formed on July 18, 1918 with a membership of 350 men who were ready to keep the fires of patriotism burning in Berks County. The men present at the meeting that night could not have envisioned just how popular the Liberty Chorus would become.

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The Liberty Chorus was headed by “sing leader” George F Eisenbrown. Before the American entry in the Great War, Eisenbrown was busy developing Muhlenberg Park, Illustrious Potentate of the Rajah Temple, and was partnered with his brother Charles in the family business, Eisenbrown Granite Works (P.F. Eisenbrown & Sons).

What began as a summertime experiment became a local phenomenon. Within a few weeks of their first sing at the 7th and Laurel playground on July 23, 1918, the Liberty Chorus had stoked the fires of the Reading’s patriotic spirit, making them a popular attraction in the community. They performed before crowds of 15,000 on Sundays in City Park. This was significant at a time when 19 men could be arrested for violating the Blue Laws for playing baseball.

Whether it was a pre-planned community sing or an impromptu appearance to celebrate good news from the Western Front, the Liberty Chorus made themselves available whenever the need to promote patriotism arose.  One such instance was a Sunday night/Monday morning gathering in front of the Berkshire Hotel. Despite unfortunate timing and weather, the Liberty Chorus sang their hearts out and led a parade of 5,000 citizens in joyous celebration through the rain-soaked streets of Reading (more on this topic in a future article).

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After the war, their popularity didn’t diminish, but their role in the promotion of patriotism drew to a close. Their performances were less frequent but still popular among the community. The Liberty Chorus was scheduled to lead a Christmas Carol sing-a-long on Christmas Eve in Penn Square, only to have it cancelled due to rain. Later they performed to honor the late, former President, Theodore Roosevelt at the Rajah Temple and they set an attendance record at the Colonial Theatre. Their last performance was on June 3, 1919 at the Auditorium on South 5th St to welcome home Company A, a fitting farewell to Reading’s Patriotic Singers.

On November 10, 2018, the Reading Choral Society will be bringing the sound of the Liberty Chorus back to life when our 1918 time capsule will be opened at the Berks History Center. The Reading Choral Society will be performing popular songs sung by the Liberty Chorus during the Great War. Click here for more information on this historic event. (for more on the Liberty Chorus, see the Historical Review of Berks County, Winter 2017-2018).

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

The Future of the Berks History Center: A Message from the Director

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Introduction & Mission:

Recognized as the Official Historical Society of Berks County by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, the Berks History Center (BHC) has been a bedrock institution in Berks County since its founding in 1869. Throughout its 149 year history, the Berks History Center has been and continues to be committed to collecting and preserving Berks County’s historic legacy. The BHC is the organization the citizens of our community turn to when they want to connect with their home, their community and their history.  Our commitment to protect and care for our invaluable collections, preserves the unique identity and character of our community. The BHC believes this is our role and value to the community we serve and are honored to provide this leadership. We seek to preserve the past, yet we understand that in order to do so for generations to come, our organization has and always will continue to evolve. And, while the future organization may look different from what it is today, the most important thing is that the BHC remains viable to continue its mission to preserve Berks County’s heritage.

Over the past fifty years, many events and trends have changed our society, impacting our community in many ways. These transformations have had a profound effect on all aspects of our lives, including the operating efficiencies of the BHC. Furthermore, the BHC faces a number of challenges within its current operating model that threaten the sustainability of the organization. The purpose of this report is to demonstrate how these changes have affected the BHC, what we have done already to address these challenges and how they will direct the work of the BHC board and management as it develops a sustainable business plan for the future.

Changes & Challenges

Over the past 20 years, a significant factor that has affected the BHC has been the attrition of the World War II Generation, who, unlike more recent age groups, were a generation of “joiners.” Unfortunately and inescapably, a large segment of the “Greatest Generation” has died, resulting in a major decline in the membership ranks of many organizations like the BHC. As a result of this decline, a significant portion of one of the BHC’s largest revenue streams has been lost. Today, the BHC has a membership community of about 1,250 (large by the standards of historical organizations) and we are fortunate to have many Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and even Millennials among those members. We are thankful to all of our members who continue to support the BHC each year. However, this number is more than fifty percent less than what it was a decade ago; in 2006, the BHC had a membership of 2,700. Fortunately through the efforts outlined in the Accomplishments & Achievements section further along in this document, the BHC’s membership has stabilized over the past 18 months. Additionally, the World War II Generation had amassed significant financial assets and was very generous in remembering and supporting the BHC with their estates. Nevertheless, this type of generous giving has also declined in recent years.

Another significant challenge has been the de-emphasis on history as a part of the core curriculum offered in schools today. The lack of concentration on history education does little to instill a sense of importance for the subject that would otherwise carry forward in a student’s later life and nurture their appreciation for local history. Also, due to lack of educational funding for school field trips and extracurricular enrichment, the BHC’s school visitation has declined over the years. Currently, an average of 3,000 school children, mostly from 3rd and 4th grades, visit the BHC every year, a number that is significantly less than in years past.

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While changes in educational standards have weakened the BHC’s community value as an educational institution, increased access to information in the digital age has also impacted the BHC. The change in the way we access information via the internet has been positive and transformational in countless ways, increasing the availability of educational resources exponentially. However, increased access to electronic information has also proven problematic for libraries and archives such as the BHC’s Henry Janssen Research Library. What was once proprietary information at the BHC, and significant revenue, is now free for the taking with a “click” of a mouse and the amount of materials available online grows daily. As a result of this quickly changing environment, the BHC can no longer rely on library access fees as a significant source of earned revenue.

In addition to decreased opportunities for earned revenue, the BHC’s business support base has dramatically declined through the relocation and erosion of businesses in Reading and Berks County. While the BHC is supported by a number of loyal local businesses, the overall availability of local business support through sponsorship, membership, and advertisement dollars has significantly declined. What was once a thriving business community, our region has suffered a striking loss of businesses that were “Berks-based.” Many of the businesses that remain in Berks County today are headquartered elsewhere and do not possess an understanding of, or appreciation for, the heritage that is unique to Berks County and what makes our community special. This loss of local business support coupled with the attrition of the generous givers of the World War II Generation has stunted the philanthropic support once given to the BHC.

Lastly, one cannot ignore the demographic and cultural changes that have taken place within the City of Reading and Berks County over the last 40-50 years. As the population has changed from predominantly European caucasian to a multicultural mix, the BHC has struggled to make the changes necessary to reflect the shifting cultural norms and interests of the current population. Overall, this shortcoming can be observed in every aspect of the organization, including the content of the museum and research library collections. Due to past collecting practices and trends, cultural norms, and the general nature of how artifacts come to be regarded as important to preserve, the BHC collections do not reflect the experiences of many of Reading and Berks County’s current populations. Furthermore, the BHC’s membership and visitation tends to be predominantly white, middle class, as does the staff and board, leaving out a large portion of our community. In the face of changing demographics in Berks County, in order to remain viable and relevant to the current and future populations of Berks County, the BHC needs to creatively adapt by planning for accessibility and inclusiveness.

Accomplishments & Achievements:

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Despite the challenges the BHC has faced over the past 30 years, it has also made significant strides. In more recent years (the last 36 – 48 months), the BHC has been aggressively proactive in planning for the future sustainability of the organization. Starting in 2014, the BHC has renovated, or created entirely new exhibits in all of its galleries in the BHC Museum. This is a major departure for the institution, where in the past, exhibits would routinely go unchanged for 25 years or more. Concurrently, repairs and updates were made to the interior of the BHC’s Museum galleries through funding received from generous friends and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, a funding stream that the BHC began accessing in 2013.

Also, in 2014, the BHC began introducing exhibits and programs that interpreted more recent subjects in history, resulting in increased community interest and engagement. Exhibits such as Magical History Tour: A Cultural and Musical Happening spawned the inception of what has become one of the community’s largest attended musical events: the Magical History Tour concert! Since it began in 2014, all 6 Magical History Tour concerts have been attended by an average of 1,200 people. The event has a dedicated following and Magical History Tour Pt. VI on August 18, 2018 will continue this excitement. Simply put, Magical History Tour is an event the people of Reading and Berks County don’t want to miss.

Using valuable feedback from our members, volunteers, and patrons, the BHC increased the number and improved the content of our programming and bus trips. By providing programs that engage the interests of our patrons as well as creating programs that reach our target markets, the BHC is building its following, increasing attendance, enhancing revenue, and expanding the reach of its brand in the community. The BHC bus trips are incredibly successful and have resulted in many new memberships.

In 2015, after thoughtful consideration, the BHC made the difficult but necessary decision to divest itself of the Hendel House. While the Hendel House remains a significant historic architectural structure in the Center Park Historic District, the property did not further the mission of the BHC and maintenance of the building exhausted significant financial resources our organization needed for its operations.

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As we took stock of the financial sustainability of the organization, we also assessed our preservation efforts in our museum and research library. In 2010 and again in 2016, the BHC installed new high-density shelving in the BHC Research Library, providing safer storage and increased access to a larger portion of the Library collections. At the same time, additional high-density shelving was added to storage areas in the museum. Later in 2016, the BHC embarked on a collections management project that aimed to inventory, organize, and evaluate the BHC’s entire collection of museum artifacts. This process took 16 months, revealed nearly 30,000 artifacts and resulted in the deaccession of artifacts that did not fit the mission of the BHC. The process of deaccessioning is now ongoing. Through the generous support of the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust and other friends of the BHC, the project was completed at the end of 2017 and has improved the BHC’s knowledge of exactly what artifacts are in the collection, where they came from, how they were used, and where they are currently stored. The project was recognized as an organizational milestone by PA Museums in 2018 with an Institutional Achievement Award that distinguished the BHC for establishing and maintaining standards of excellence in the BHC Museum. By tending to our collections through these initiatives, the BHC is upholding its responsibility to care for and protect the artifacts and documents that embody the historic legacy of Berks County.

With the addition of enthusiastic and professional staff members the BHC has created a positive culture of teamwork, persistence, and a “can do” attitude, which has gone a long way in helping the BHC to achieve its goals. The BHC staff and their volunteers are becoming experts in teamwork. With positive leadership and a culture of esprit de corps, the Berks History Center has become a creative, collaborative work environment. The cultural changes that have taken place at the BHC were fueled by a shift in leadership and policies on the Board of Directors. Term limits were established and new board members have infused the BHC with fresh ideas.

Finally, in the past two years, the BHC has innovated the way that we connect with our community, including our members, patrons, sponsors, and partner organizations. Through a branding assessment and strategy, the BHC has made a significant effort to establish and elevate BHC’s brand identity by becoming more consistent in our branding efforts and building better relationships with the people who support us. For example, we reviewed and revised our membership benefits, along with our membership management systems, to better serve the people who support the BHC. We implemented a communications and social media strategy that prioritizes engagement and utilizes feedback from our members, patrons and followers. Due to these efforts the BHC has built a significant following and is now better recognized throughout the community. The BHC has experienced approximately a 35% increase in attendance at its 2nd Saturday Programs, a regular attendance of 1,200 participants at its annual Magical History Tour Concert and 400-600 participants at its annual 4 Centuries in Berks Historic Property Tour.  While more work needs to be done, all of these accomplishments, as well as our rebranding efforts have brought about greater engagement with BHC’s constituents and laid the foundation for a brighter, more sustainable future as a public trust intended to serve the entire community.

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The trustees, staff and volunteers at the BHC have worked hard to make real, effective change within the organization and many of their endeavors have been revolutionary in the overall direction and viability of the institution. All of these combined Accomplishments & Achievements have contributed to reducing the structural deficit of the BHC operating budget by 60% and while this is a good start, the BHC board and staff are continuing their work to formulate a business model that is viable, relevant and ensures future sustainability. However, even with these efforts underway, the BHC currently faces a number of hurdles that need to be addressed in order for the organization to survive. In addition to the changing cultural climate of support and membership that was outlined in the first four pages of this paper, the BHC is challenged by a number of issues on site. With each passing year, the perception of safety (real or imagined) seems to be more of a concern for those who visit the BHC. Combined with the challenge of limited parking, this attitude inhibits the BHC as a user-friendly destination. The BHC facilities are aging and in need of significant repair and retrofitting. The BHC museum building was constructed over 90 years ago out of solid concrete, making the structure a challenge to retrofit or adapt for multiple usages. The BHC buildings are also in need of new mechanical and HVAC systems and do not have the appropriate climate control or fire suppression systems necessary for protecting the BHC’s precious collections.

Conclusion:

In planning for the future, any decision must be grounded in a preliminary strategic/business planning session with staff, trustees, and members of the BHC community to better establish and define the BHC’s core values and identity. In addition, a thorough building assessment of our current location must be conducted concurrently with the strategic/business plan to determine whether or not the BHC’s current location is viable as a venue for the BHC of the future.

Having spent considerable time thinking about multiple options for the BHC, we believe working collaboratively with a consulting firm that specializes in museum and cultural organizations to achieve a sustainable business model is the BHC’s best course of action.  Integrating the corporate knowledge of the BHC Board and Management Team with the expertise of a well-regarded consulting firm, the BHC will determine the best direction for the future sustainability of the organization.

Carrying out a strategic plan and any course of action that follows will require significant capital and community support. As we move forward, one must keep in mind that the BHC is not simply another cultural organization within our community, but rather, a museum and research library that are unique in promoting the cultural and historic legacy of our county. If marketed correctly and structured as a tourist attraction with greater traffic, accessibility and parking capacity, the BHC could make a significant contribution to the economic development and promotion of our region by virtue of its potential as a tourist attraction that tells the story of Berks County. In order to take that approach the BHC will require a strategic planning document structured in a narrative format that can be used as a marketing tool to engage the support of the entire community, including Berks County residents, philanthropist and state and local government. The BHC leadership has determined that the best way to achieve the strategic framework/marketing document we described is with a firm that possesses expertise in this field. Therefore, after interviewing four organizations that hold the skill sets we deem necessary, the BHC Board and Management has decided to move forward and engage the consulting services of Schultz & Williams to work with our organization to produce this document.

2018AnnualReportGraphs

Sincerely,

 

Sime Bertolet, Executive Director

The Berks History Center’s Annual Report was originally published in the Fall 2018 Issue of The Historical Review of Berks County