Go Deeper

History Out of Hiding

Posted May 28th, 2009

Philadelphia is obsessed with its past. Nostalgia pervades much of how we function as a city, idealizing our history through sepia filters and Vaseline-coated lenses while paying scant attention to the heritage and legacies that history has bestowed.

“We seem to stop telling our stories in a public engagement terms at 1787,” said Jay Wahl, managing producer of Hidden City Philadelphia. “The most amazing things happened in the next century.”

Starting Saturday, Hidden City will present site-specific installations and performances across the city, using contemporary work to revive and interpret the histories of important, intriguing, and dramatic urban spaces. Many of them, like the Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad Street, are still active (albeit in different form), although some, like the Royal Theater on South Street, haven’t seen visitors in a very, very long time.

The title of the project does not refer back to these sites as hidden places. What’s hidden here is Philadelphia history itself. By inviting Philadelphians back into historical sites in our own city, the project creates the opportunity to reconsider and reengage our immediate environment.

“The project is about stories of our city. Artists tell stories, that’s what they do. And a lot of history has trouble getting its story told,” Wahl said.

We caught up with Wahl today at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, one of the Hidden City sites, where he was working to finish an installation before Saturday’s opening. After the jump: Sanford Biggers‘s installation at Mother Bethel, and photos from the installation in progress.

At Mother Bethel, the historical connection between the church and other Philadelphia locations is at the core of Biggers’s installation.

“Sanford models part of his project by connecting the dots of Underground Railroad sites in Philadelphia,” said Wahl. “Audiences will be given a star map of the city, with the north star as Mother Bethel.”

Each star represents one of the Philadelphia sites that helped runaway slaves escape from the South. Mother Bethel gave birth to the first African-American denomination in the United States (the African Methodist Episcopal Church), worked to abolish slavery, and served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

The installation brings together quilt symbols and celestial symbols, both of which were used to convey secret messages, plans, and directions to slaves seeking their freedom. Antique quilts, brought together by Biggers for the installation, hang from Mother Bethel’s gallery.

Elsie Young, a docent at the church and its museum, showed us around the sanctuary. She told us that the gallery is shaped like a horseshoe to evoke the first home of the church – a 1791 blacksmith shop on the same site.

On our visit, we saw two of the quilts Biggers had painted with star maps to represent the interconnectedness of Philadelphia’s Underground Railroad sites. The work is still being refined, and Wahl said that more elements are to be added before the first showing on Saturday.

“Sanford Biggers created a lotus flower image out of slave ships, and it becomes a panel of the quilt. He takes an image that’s pretty ugly and tries to transform it into something beautiful.”

During Hidden City, beauty will be nestled in history, and will be derived from unexpected places. At the Royal Theater, audience members will have to wear hard hats suitable for a construction site, one of the conditions for using the space. At the Philadelphia Inquirer’s building, broadside prints will explore news work and feminism. And at the Disston Saw Works, video, audio, sculpture, and found objects and industrial scrap from the site are incorporated into an immersive installation.

Disston also offered up one of the more surreal tableaux the Hidden City team came across as they explored the project sites.

“We found an infirmary that hadn’t been touched since 1955. It looked like a doctor had been treating somebody, got called away, and everything just froze. The log was still open, tools were in the sink, pills were on the floor,” said Wahl.

He also sees a connection, perhaps oblique, between Hidden City and Live Arts. But isn’t history all about exploring unanticipated connections?

“This is the exact complement to Live Arts, which brings together as much performance work as possible in two and a half weeks to show the breadth of a medium. We are about the city, without as many artists, but telling as many stories as we can. We’re only about the place we’re in.”

Hidden City starts May 30, and runs through June 28. For a full schedule, map of locations, and instructions for, yes, the Hidden City card game, visit

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by Josh McIlvain