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Openings and Closings

It occurred to me recently, as I work as a part of the team opening the brand new Edelman Fossil Park and Museum of Rowan University, that I have had the unique experience of being a part of several museum openings and closings. I’d imagine that most folks don’t get the opportunity to experience a major transition within an institution like this once in their career, and somehow I’ve ended up being a part of three in the last few years.


In march of 2014 I left the Please Touch Museum a few months after being laid off, rehired with a 35% pay cut, and watching my job get reposted with one word changed in the job description. After that experience as a part of PTM’s bankruptcy proceedings and my previous experience at Elfreth’s Alley where there was literally no money, I was in the market for stability and security. That’s how I stumbled upon the job post for Museum Curator at the Wells Fargo History Museum which, to my surprise, existed. My full experience at this museum is a story for another day, for now I’ll just jump straight to the end: I got laid off.

In March of 2020, mere days before the COVID-19 pandemic would shut down the city of Philadelphia, the second season of Dirty Money premiered on Netflix. The first episode of that season was titled “The Wagon Wheel” and focused on Wells Fargo’s abundance of scandals. Unfortunately, the writers of this documentary series chose a framework for their storytelling that had also appeared in a Washington Post article a few months earlier: Wells Fargo’s focus on their history is one of the reasons why they have so many scandals.

This was news to everyone who worked in the history side of Wells Fargo’s massive marketing department. In the six years I had worked there, we had become more and more of an afterthought. As the scandals piled up more middle managers were added, one of whom seemed dead set on ensuring that the museums did absolutely nothing, the museums faded into the background. So much so, that another department had drawn up plans for a new entrance to the building in which the Philadelphia museum resided that took away roughly 20% of the museum’s floor plan and no one bothered to inform the museum team. I found out because I was friends with the cleaning crew.

“The Wagon Wheel” aired on March 11 and, among some absolutely true and horrifying things about the company, one of the talking heads made fun of the stuffed ponies that the bank had. (Each year, a new stuffed pony was released based on a horse that actually had been used by Wells Fargo in the past.) On March 12, we were told that CEO Charles Scharf wanted all traces of these ponies gone, which was clearly the most important takeaway from that show and what it revealed about the company.

And that’s how I lost my office to four life-sized stuffed ponies.

On March 13, the 12 Wells Fargo museums across the country shut down for three weeks due to the pandemic. Three weeks turned into forever for 11 of them, with only the museum at headquarters in San Francisco still open. At the end of summer that year, it was announced that the museums would be closing and we were losing our jobs, though it would be another two weeks before we found out when our jobs were ending.

My coworker Mandi and I ended up being charged with decommissioning the museum, a task that would take from October of 2020 through April of 2021. We had to first inventory everything in the museum against accessioning records, work with bank historians on what would be kept, what would be donated, and what would be thrown away. We then had to arrange for shipping of a collection worth millions, including historic currency, actual chunks of gold, an N.C. Wyeth painting, and an 1865 city Stagecoach.

We put together a plan of attack, dividing tasks over the course of the time we were given to manage them as best as we could, saving the big one for the end. The work was incredibly tedious, but the fact that I was in a room with Mandi, one of my favorite coworkers of all time, after seven months of only being around with my wife and in-laws (who I love, but seven months is seven months) it was actually fun. It was also a bit depressing to literally pack up and ship out our jobs, but let’s find those silver linings where we can.

My favorite part of the process was the donating. In what will surprise everyone except museum professionals, there wasn’t as much interest in the collection items as there was in the fixtures. Several smaller museums and historical societies ended up with some pretty sweet cases to display their own collections because of this process. Unfortunately, there were different collection objects and works of fine art that no one wanted, and we were instructed to throw them away. Maybe some of those items were magically trash picked and ended up in private collections, but who’s to say?

This sign has always been in my basement.

After pretty much everything was said and done, we had one very large task looming over us. The deconstruction and shipping of an 1865 City Stagecoach. This vehicle sat in our bank’s lobby, located in the Duke and Duke building from Trading Places, from the time Wells Fargo took over Wachovia. Because of that, we could not start taking it apart until the bank closed at 5 p.m. and needed to be done and completely cleaned up before it opened at 9 a.m.

There was a full team of folks with experience transporting historic vehicles hired for this one and they worked throughout the night. I was amazed at how much of the process used simple machines, particularly during the process of taking the stagecoach apart. Finally, after 10 hours of work, we were carting the body of the stagecoach out onto Broad and Walnut in Center City Philadelphia at 3 a.m. which can be seen in the timelapse below. The part where the timelapse abruptly cuts off is when the lift on the truck gave way and the stagecoach began to fall. We ended up stabilizing and lifting the vehicle by hand into the truck as a woman under the influence of something(s) catcalled us from across the street. Other duties as assigned, I suppose.

A few days later, Mandi and I stood in the empty room that used to be the museum in which we were employed. Despite the company’s countless faults and the laughably awful leadership we had dealt with in the waning years, it still stung a bit to stand in that empty room knowing that we had spent the last several months sending pieces of our job away. On the plus side, it led to some pretty great things. Mandi is now focused on creating amazing art (check out @collagesnacks on Instagram) and it allowed me to move on to my next adventure: reopening the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science.


The Delaware Museum of Natural History was inadvertently the most prepared museum for the pandemic. Since 2014, they had been working on plans for their Museum Metamorphosis, in which they tore the museum down to the studs and started over from scratch, building entirely new exhibits and experiences. The plan was to shut down for about a year beginning in January 2021. So, they ended up closing a tad earlier than that but still, kudos to them for accidental preparedness.

In December of 2020, after a series of pandemic-related closings and reopenings, the Delaware Museum of Natural History closed their doors for the last time. In late May of 2022, the brand-new Delaware Museum of Nature and Science opened in its place. The footprint was the same, but everything else was different. I was hired on as their Guest Experience manager in early March, coming to work at a construction site every day as I built a new Guest Experience team.

Despite coming on board toward the end of the process, I learned so much in those two months between my hiring and the reopening of the museum. Seeing all of the different vendors and contractors and recognizing the importance of the owner’s representative to oversee them all was a fantastic learning experience. And, given the small staff, getting in some more of those other duties as assigned onto the old CV was a plus.

Like loading a T. rex head into a uHaul. Just another day at the office.

Given that my hiring came somewhat late in the process, the most important learning experience for me was the punch list. Going through the punch list over the course of a few weeks essentially entailed looking closely at every minor detail and scrutinizing the entire construction project. At first, I was hesitant to point out mistakes, given that everyone was tired of the longer-than-expected construction timeline. But after the Director of Exhibits enthusiastically expressed her desire to hear about everything that could possibly be wrong, I went all in.

Another big learning experience came from a mistake, which given the overall theme of my writing should come as no surprise. Our first major public opening event was going down on a Thursday evening. My staff started the Saturday prior. In fairness, this is a partial mistake, with some of the blame laying in the world of post-Covid hiring. That said, in retrospect, I should have been brought on much sooner. And while my goal was to have full-time staff start 6-8 weeks out and part-time staff 3 weeks out, I should’ve began hiring the day I set foot on the construction site. Instead, we ended up learning a brand new ticketing system and workflow as we opened to the public.

I spent about eighteen months riding a post-construction project wave of trying new things and encouraging new ideas. Eventually, my tendency to constantly push for new things began to wear out its welcome. Luckily for me, that coincided with an exciting new opportunity. Just across the Delaware River, a brand-new museum unlike any other was about to open, and they were in the market for someone with a little bit of visitor experience, um, experience.


The Edelman Fossil Park and Museum of Rowan University (we do love absurdly long names in this field) had long been the dream of paleontologist Dr. Kenneth Lacovara. As construction plodded along, the reality of that dream became closer to being realized and hiring began for the new museum. I had been waiting for this moment ever since I first heard rumors of this museum years before and I created my first (and, to date, only) Google alert for this museum so when the first jobs were posted, I was on it.

I applied to be the Director of Public Programming and, after a couple of interviews, I got a phone call from Ken. I did not get the job, but they were about to start a search for a Manager of Visitor Experience and, if I wanted it, that job was mine. I had a short chat with my wife that night to confirm what I already knew, I was trading in my commute to Delaware for a commute to South Jersey. I started in December of 2023 as either the 4th or 5th person to join the team.

The rest of this tale is a story for another day for, at the moment of this writing, I am still in the middle of it. But I will be sure to report back in a few months once we have opened to the public to let you know how it went.


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Verb. 1) Pertaining to the behavior of being a Wittwer. 2) Doing odd things that only Wittwers would do. 3) Catchall phrase for the thoughts and actions of Patrick Wittwer.

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