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Philadelphia museum truck drives home local history

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 7:59 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Last year, Erin Bernard was walking past a row of food trucks near Temple University when inspiration struck.

“I was like, ‘Wouldn't it be great if there was a museum on a truck?' ” said Bernard, a graduate student in public history. And not just one that showed up at your doorstep, but one “that you helped make what was on it?”

With that one big idea — and lots of legwork — Bernard devised the Philadelphia Public History Truck, a — ahem — vehicle for documenting the untold stories of Philadelphia residents and communities, one neighborhood at a time. The work is so promising it may soon become part of Temple's public-history master's curriculum and may serve as a model for similar projects around the country.

The project's inaugural exhibition, focused on East Kensington, opens at Little Berlin, a space at 2430 Coral St.

Called “Manufacturing Fire” — the second anniversary of the neighborhood's deadly Thomas Buck Hosiery mill fire is April 9 — it explores two forces that have shaped this neighborhood: the threat of factory fires and the work of fiery activists.

Bernard had contacted neighborhood associations around the city. Jeff Carpineta, who was president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association at the time, was the quickest to respond, offering not only his support, but also his truck. (The decommissioned ice cream truck has been used for neighborhood cleanups, indie music tours, political demonstrations, art installations and, recently, as a candlelit “Victorian letter-writing cabin.”)

Bernard also found partners in the Kensington Community Food Co-op, the Little Berlin artist community and a soup kitchen on Kensington Avenue called St. Francis Inn, where she served meals and listened to stories.

Since the fall, Bernard has been working with those partners to organize community events, like a history block party, to engage residents. At the events, attendees could write down their first memories of the neighborhood and pin them to a “memory map,” submit questions for Bernard to research, donate “objects of memory” or sit down for extended oral history interviews.

“I didn't want it to be the type of museum where people come in and experience it based on what curators have thought was important,” she said. “It's about what the people are worried about, and what they want to talk about.”

And what they were worried about was fires: the deadly 2012 blaze, the disastrous fire at the nearby Cavco window factory in 2010 and the series of fires that leveled the Providence Dye Works, which used to occupy the two blocks in between. And they discussed buildings vacant or in disrepair that they worry could go up in flames.

In her research, Bernard found the same concerns were relevant decades ago. She unearthed a set of bylaws from an 1830s convention between the volunteer firefighters of Northern Liberties and Kensington to quell rioting at fire scenes. And she found plenty of evidence of activism, like the story of a white activist, Dorothy Anderson, and a black one, Mary Rouse, from opposite sides of Kensington Avenue, who came together to lobby the city despite racial tensions at the time.

“It's a lot of hard history,” Carpineta said, “and it's often overlooked.”

The “Manufacturing Fire” exhibit will be on view through April 26. Then, Bernard will take a condensed version on the truck through May and June, stopping outside schools around the city to share with students.

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