By Sue Ann Rybak
Historic Germantown and the Germantown Historical Society have voted unanimously to merge their organizations, combining under the banner of Historic Germantown: Freedom’s Backyard.
The merger is an outgrowth of Historic Germantown’s recent efforts to foster a closer alliance among 15 historic sites and cultural institutions located in Northwest Philadelphia.
Dennis Pickeral, board president of Historic Germantown said the merger makes sense for several reasons.
“There is a lot of power in collaboration,” said Pickeral, who is also the director of Stenton, one of the consortium’s 15 member sites. “From a collaborative standpoint, historic sites tend not to be collaborative minded. This is a whole shift in thinking.
One example of a successful joint program is the national award-winning education program History Hunters, which, according to Pickeral, brings an estimated 2,000 public school students to 15 different sites throughout Northwest Philadelphia each year. Another program, Germantown Works, which was a yearlong Historic Germantown initiative, highlights the hard-working spirit program of Germantown’s people throughout its 300-year history. The program was supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Heritage Philadelphia Program.
Pickeral said collaborative programming allows them to “provide high quality programming, serve more people, be more visible in the community, provide leadership and talk about community history in ways that are relevant to residents of Germantown today that we can’t do individually.”
Pickeral added that instead of struggling and competing against each other for funds, the organization could focus on Germantown and its powerful message.
“The history of Germantown is remarkable,” Pickeral said. “There are so many firsts. We are home to one of America’s longest historic districts. We have seven national landmarks here. When visitors come to Germantown, they get 300 years plus of history. The great thing about it is the diversity of the stories.
“We realized as a collective organization that we needed to play a stronger leadership role in Germantown by advocating for it to be a clean, safe place and by promoting the kinds of businesses that make people want to stay around. We can’t just be about history.”
Pickeral said a “two-pronged approach was needed”: one, to “reach out to the surrounding community by being a leader and creating programs for our neighbors,” and the other would be for Germantown “to be a tourist destination and a place where people want to come.”
“But,” he added, “we need to create that visitor experience first, and that starts on a very basic level.”
Mark Sellers, board president of the Germantown Historical Society, said the merger had brought together the society’s 116 years of collecting and archiving with “this young vibrant organization.”
“The Germantown Historical Society has always felt that it covered historic Germantown Township, which included Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill and Germantown,” Sellers said.
Sellers said the partnership allows the sites to work together to plan events so that two different sites don’t have a big event on the same day and to prevent sites from “competing for audiences.”
He added that the extensive marketing would allow them to be more visible in the community.
Barbara Hogue, executive director of Historic Germantown, discussed some of the recent programs available as a result of the collaborative partnership.
“Currently, we are doing a program now called Second Saturdays, where all the sites are open on that same day of the month from noon to 4 p.m.,” she said.
Hogue pointed out that, as a result of the merger, the two organizations have been doing “collaborative multi-site programming bursts, which include Easter egg hunts, ghost and garden tours and Juneteenth/July 4th/Revolutionary Germantown Festival programs, which focus on freedom in Germantown and include living-history performances and battle reenactments.”
Pickeral said Historic Germantown was excited about Citibank’s support and offer to sponsor some of this year’s events. He added that Historic Germantown has attracted regional and national recognition for its innovative collaborative work.
“We have had a lot of momentum in recent years,” Pickeral said. “Recently, we were featured in the New York Times. There is an incredible richness of the cultural attraction in the Northwest.”
Historic Germantown: Freedoms Backyard will be based at the Germantown Historical Society building at 5501 Germantown Ave. and will be headed by Hogue, who was hired last year with the support of a two-year grant from the Barra Foundation. Regular museum and library hours, programs and other services will continue, with the goal of expanding those services in the future.