When Bob Giannini slid down the hills in Yorktown, Va., on pieces of cardboard as a young boy, history would come up and sting him right in the keister.
“Something would hit you in the butt, and it’d turn out to be a piece of a bayonet from the Revolutionary or Civil War,” he said. “It just fascinated the heck out of me.”
Instead of avoiding those bayonet-laden hills, Giannini kept sliding down them and continued searching for new frontiers in which to explore our nation’s past. He worked at Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia while attending college. In June 1971, he joined the staff at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park.
Today, Giannini, 74, of Holmesburg — a father of three and grandfather to nine — is the longest-serving employee at Independence Park. In June, the museum curator will have 47 years on staff.
He’s still got a slight Southern accent, and his tie with tiny desert islands and palm trees might be an indication of which way he’s leaning when he talks about possibly retiring this year. But Giannini’s blue eyes are clear and his mind is sharp.
As one of three curators for the park, Giannini is responsible for researching, protecting, and restoring the 4.15 million artifacts in the park’s collection. Those objects, many of which are not on display, range from the small — like broken pottery pieces — to the large, like the Liberty Bell.
“We take care of the dead, in the sense that we’re taking care of stuff that once belonged to the living,” Giannini said of museum curators.
And he’s keeping the secrets of the dead safe. When asked, Giannini refused to talk on the record about the most unusual items in the park’s collection.
“We can’t go there,” he said.
What Giannini will talk about is the most memorable moment he’s experienced at the park. On July 4, 2001, the television writer and producer Norman Lear filmed a cast of Hollywood celebrities — including Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg, and Benicio Del Toro — reading the Declaration of Independence in the Assembly Room at Independence Hall.
“That was amazing,” Giannini said. “I was in awe.”
The film was eventually shown as part of a traveling exhibition that included a printed Dunlap Broadside copy of the Declaration of Independence, purchased by Lear — one of only 26 copies known to exist.
At one point while filming in Independence Hall, Lear approached Giannini and asked if he could pump smoke into the room “to give more of an effect,” Giannini said.
“I told him point-blank, ‘Mr. Lear, I’m sorry, but we don’t allow that,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Not to dishonor you, sir, in any way, but this is not a prop. This is the real deal, where you are.’ ”
For all the history Giannini has witnessed and experienced over nearly five decades at Independence Park, what’s moved him the most has been the personal connections he’s discovered between his family and the park.
His grandfather was the foreman at the soapstone plant in Schuyler, Va., when architects traveled there from Philadelphia in the 1960s to get stone to replace the front and back steps at Independence Hall.
And perhaps closest to Giannini’s heart is his family’s connection to Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence and helped craft the country’s government.
Giannini’s fourth great-grandfather, Antonio Giannini, and his family came to the colonies from Italy in 1773 as indentured servants. Once they’d worked off their debt after five years, Jefferson hired Antonio Giannini to be a gardener at Monticello.
“Jefferson actually helped my ancestor break his indenture,” Giannini said.
And today, Giannini helps to keep watch over items that once belonged to Jefferson. His favorite is a walking cane that remains atop the desk where Jefferson sat at Independence Hall.
“It’s just really strange the way things have worked out for me,” Giannini said.
“Well, it’s because I wound up here and my wife’s from Philly, and it turned out to be a great city.”
What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?
“Classic Philly moment, it just happened … when the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Go Eagles!”
If you had one wish for the city, what would it be?
“I think it would be that more people would come into the city and see what they’ve been missing at Independence National Historical Park.”
Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you’d like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at email@example.com or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.
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