About 15 years ago, when he was packing up the contents of his late parents’ house in the Northeast, Howard Robboy came across the old menorah.
It was one of his family’s most treasured possessions, among the first things they bought when they arrived in Philadelphia in the 1920s from Russia. Howard could remember as a kid going over to his grandparents’ Port Richmond rowhouse, where the family ran a grocery in the front room. And how, during Hanukkah, after they said the prayers and lit the candles, Howard would palm a pack of Tastykakes from the grocery racks.
The menorah was passed on, and now it was in his hands. One of the branches was bent. That’s what happens in real life, Howard thought. Things get bent.
It was a small item that spoke to a larger experience. Howard, a retired sociology professor from the College of New Jersey, could think of no better place for it than the little museum near Seventh and Market where he’d been volunteering. The Philadelphia History Museum.
Howard lives in Delray Beach, Fla., now. He’s a regular at the only Philly bar within miles — the Hurricane, where on Sundays he watches Eagles games with his soft pretzels. Last week, he fired up his computer and dashed off a passionate email to Mayor Kenney: Howard’s beloved museum was shuttering, perhaps indefinitely, and someone had to stick up for it.
Howard decided this job fell squarely on his 73-year-old shoulders. Besides being the place’s biggest booster, a letter from him packs a certain amount of clout. He has made a career out of chronicling our city’s ephemera. He’s published multiple papers on the history of the hoagie. Sample title: “The sociocultural context of an Italian American dietary item.”
In the cultural anthropology world, these dissertations are known as the Hoagie Papers.
Howard didn’t stop there. He’s written about the sociopolitical implications of a 39th birthday party for the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. He’s researched the migration of Polish food from Port Richmond.
And, before all of that, as a college kid, he sold hot dogs in the grandstands of Connie Mack Stadium. He got hit by a foul ball in 1964, the highlight for him of that ill-fated Phillies season.
Along with the menorah and family photos of the old shop, he sent the museum that sweaty hot-dog-slinging shirt. It’s never been displayed.
As a museum volunteer, Howard manned the big floor map of Philadelphia — by far the institution’s most engaging exhibit. Visitors would dance across their neighborhoods, pointing out where they’d walked to school, where their grandmother lived.
When he wasn’t doing that, he was doing what he does best: Gabbing. And recommending cheesesteak joints, pointing out his menorah, next to George Washington’s desk, and getting visitors to donate their own stuff.
“Nothing fancy,” he said. “Just stuff from everyday life.”
Not everyone matches Howard’s unbridled enthusiasm for this tiny museum. But I’m inclined to agree with him when he says it should be saved.
Done right, the museum could be one of the few in Philadelphia that celebrates not only our revolutionary past but the deep, delightful weirdness of everyday life here — of the things we choose to hold up. Like Howard Robboy’s menorah.
But the thing is, it hasn’t been done right for a while.
Enshrined in the City Charter as a showcase for the city’s historical artifacts, the museum became, over the years, a kind of cluttered repository that had the feel of a yard sale or a bric-a-brac shop. There’s Washington’s desk and Ben Franklin’s drinking glass. And Mike Schmidt’s batting helmet. And Joe Frazier’s gloves.
Mixed in were everyday items — the ones that could make the museum extraordinary in its ordinariness.
Whether any of these items are going to see the light of day any time soon remains an open question. The city cut some funding this year, and Temple University backed away from a potential partnership. If the city is looking for a new vision for the museum, it should double down, dig into those boxes of ephemera — the museum only exhibits 400 pieces from a collection of 100,000 — and tell the larger story of Philadelphia life.
I think about the delighted, curious emails I get whenever I write about a piece of overlooked history — like the turn-of-the-century files at Police Headquarters, or the too-weird-to-believe background of the Divine Lorraine, or the King of Jeans sign in Passyunk, perhaps the tackiest thing to ever grace our tacky city.
But they’re the things we build our own stories around. Break out those boxes. Make the place feel relevant — and not solely, as has been suggested, in a digital archive, but a physical space that feels in touch with where we are as a city, and where we’re going.
Or as Howard, the old hoagie historian, pleaded with the mayor: Find a bigger building. I’m inclined to agree.