Museum on wheels — Erin Bernard’s Philadelphia Public History Truck

[Want to place Philly history in context? Get rolling with the Public History Truck. Noreen tells us about this new take on the food truck trend, fueled by neighborhood engagement. — the Artblog editors]

This past August, I interviewed the curator of the city’s only vehicular museum — the Philadelphia Public History Truck, which recently won the Philly Geek Awards‘ “Best IRL Project of the Year” honor. Erin Bernard is the grad student who got it all started. Through our conversation, I learned that the project is much more than a museum on wheels. Instead, the truck has become a mobile center for community access and engagement, and a celebration of each neighbor and neighborhood it visits.

Getting kids on board

Summer camp with the History Truck: student work at Tree House Books. Photo courtesy of The History Truck

We met on a Monday morning at Tree House Books, a nonprofit literacy center and bookstore on Susquehanna Avenue. This July, in partnership with this organization and artist Theodore A. Harris, the truck’s team joined the summer camp program for kids ages 6 – 15. Erin’s public history workshops trained campers to conduct oral history interviews of North Philadelphia residents, while Theodore’s workshop helped them visually interpret these histories through collage.

A student’s collage at Tree House. Photo courtesy of The History Truck.

But what exactly is public history? I had to admit to Erin that I was unfamiliar with the term. Public history, formerly known as applied history, is the practice of history in the real world, and the range of ways to do so. But I would be remiss to classify the Public History Truck as only a public history project, when it has so many other facets: community arts, urban education, social practice, and a strong DIY spirit.

Student work from the History Truck’s summer session. Photo courtesy of The History Truck

Coming from an undergraduate program in journalism, Erin is about to graduate with a master’s degree in public history. Her choice to move to that field was a reaction to what she sees as a problem in journalism–where stories about Philadelphia are largely about gunshots and prostitution. When the media covers and archives stories like these, Erin explains, that is what we remember. Erin aims to document neighborhood history in a more contextual way–through the experiences of the people that live there.

From Temple U to North Philly

The truck’s summer journey to North Philadelphia marks its second “exhibition cycle”–a term Erin uses to describe the truck’s extended visits to various Philadelphia neighborhoods, as well as the collaborative public projects and community engagement it fosters. The History Truck team then stores the information collected in their archive, called Home Drive: an online repository of short audio clips from oral histories.

Mail truck
The History Truck. Photo courtesy of The History Truck

Before such a thing as an “exhibition cycle” became a reality, however, the History Truck was an idea conceived on Temple University’s campus. I asked Erin about its beginnings.

Bernard told me in an email: “The first exhibition cycle was entirely my entrepreneurship and the investment of the East Kensington Neighbors Association and other community partners who helped.”   The truck itself is a shared vehicle used by her project and other organizations, she said.

More trivially, I asked her about the relationship between her concept and the recent food truck trend. She confirmed my observation–the notion came from a walking discussion that took place among a sea of food trucks parked on campus.


However, the food truck comparison can only stretch so far. Unlike food trucks, whose primary focus is output, community input is essential to History Truck. Erin’s goal is not to serve history, but to listen to the history that comes to the truck.

A block party
A storytelling block party at Little Berlin Fairgrounds. Photo courtesy of The History Truck

In 2013, Erin proposed the idea to her academic advisor, who wrote a large grant proposal to the Barra Foundation.  “The Barra proposal was an idea my advisor and I had after I launched this project with my investment, Jeff Carpineta’s sharing of the truck, and EKNA’s microgrant.  The work at Tree House was funded through a Philly STAKE microgrant,” Bernard said.

The response from Barra was a whopping $85,000 grant!  “All work forward, today forward, is through the $85,000 grant,” Bernard told me.  “The Barra grant just kicked in to fund this year– 2014-15 in North Philly.”   The grant helped position the project as a possible curriculum model for future public historians.


As for the archive the project is creating, “The online archive funded is a to-come partnership with Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center, Urban Archives,” she explained.

After initial contact with the East Kensington Neighborhood Association‘s then-president, Jeff Carpineta, the truck has been shared by The History Truck and the association.  From then on, the process was all about relationships and social exchange, and meeting people in an organic, neighborly way. At the Little Berlin Fairground in October 2013, the truck and neighborhood organized a storytelling block party, in which guests became memory-mappers, creating maps representative of their own memories.

People in front of map
EKNA President Clare Herlihy Dych works with a memory-mapper in Kensington. Photo courtesy of The History Truck

While its North Philly cycle will continue through 2014 and into June 2015, Erin is already looking ahead to a potential cycle in Chinatown, and a partnership with the Asian Arts Initiative. Does this mean that the Philadelphia Public History Truck will move on and shed its connections to North Philadelphia? Absolutely not. For Erin, social practice, and more specifically, the History Truck’s work, is not transformative without an understanding of what comes next. That means making long-lasting relationships, friendships, and letting the community tell history for itself.

[ED. NOTE: This post has been corrected to clarify information about the funding and operation of The History Truck. — the Artblog editors]