© 2020 Abigail Sarver-Verhey

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collaboratively interpreting
a historic collection

This exhibition was a collaborative effort by a team of exhibition designers, educators, and community outreach specialists. We were tasked with interpreting the vast collection of early American objects at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA and chose to focus on firefighting in early America. The story had a rich local history, with major firsts such as Pennsylvania Hospital and Benjamin Franklin's fire insurance company, and the exhibition aimed to tell a national story of emergency safety through this local and historical lens. My role on the team included interpretive planning, graphic design, experience design, and project management.




Visitors enter the exhibition through a slanted entryway into a central entrance/exit area. 


Casework emerges from a geometric metal gridwork of Philadelphia's city layout, briefly showcasing key fire and medical objects to create a visual sense of the time period and foreshadow what visitors will see in the exhibition.


A large scale illustrated graphic of the Vine Street Wharf Fire, backlit so that the sparks and flames in the image come to life with dynamic red highlights, provides a backdrop for the title text.


The first major section of Burning Cities transports visitors back to the early 1700s, when fire response was localized and largely consisted of neighbors helping one another out of mutual support and community protection.


The era is introduced through Gilbert Hunt, whose story of saving people from the Richmond Theater fire narrates an animation of the event. Gilbert’s story provides an extraordinary example of the neighborly efforts that defined fire response in this era. 

To ground the exhibition in first-person narratives, most of the section introductions feature a short animation through which a historical character shares their experience of a fire emergency. These characters range from historic figures to composites of real people and general period tradition.


The animations use the same 18th century illustration style as other exhibition images, creating whimsical, unexpected moments of movement in the traditionally static images. Localized speakers provide a voice over in which an actor plays the part of the character.

An interactive provides visitors a chance to join a bucket brigade, the main firefighting service of the day. Visitors must rally others to assist them, just as communities had to get help from one another in the event of a fire. The visitor's bucket brigade then tip the buckets over one after another, activating blue "water" lights in each consecutive bucket. The last visitor tips the final bucket toward the house and the fire in the window disappears with a hiss.

A rounded, bright red booth showcases the alarm system used in the early 1700s: wooden rattles operated by night watchmen. A historic rattle is displayed along with replicas for visitors to try themselves.

The primary fire response goal of the era was salvaging property. A case displays some of the tools used in these efforts such as a salvage bag (full of valuable household items) and a bed key. At times an educator is stationed in the section with a discovery cart where visitors can see how bed keys were used to disassemble valuable bed frames. 


Throughout the exhibition, Preparedness Today panels give advice for modern fire preparedness. In this section, visitors are warned not to stop for valuables like people did in the past because of how much faster fires spread today. 

Fire can often result in injury, especially burns, and in this era medical treatments were given in the home, typically by a local woman with medical knowledge. Two historic diaries of medical recipes kept by Martha Ballard and Elizabeth Drinker are displayed alongside a digital screen that provides greater access to their content and explains the application of different treatments.


The next section of the exhibition explores the formation of the volunteer organizations that came together in the mid-1700s to better address emergencies in growing cities. These organizations represented great strides in emergency response, but their heyday was an era of distracting rivalry both in and around the role of firefighter.


Mary R. Barton introduces the section through the story of her house catching on fire after she accidentally knocked over a candle. Volunteer fire companies rushed to the scene but nearly did not put out the fire as a fight broke out between their rival companies. 

Fire insurance companies began to emerge around this time, the first founded by famous Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin. A historic map graphic of Philadelphia from the turn of the 19th century shows the locations of the numerous volunteer fire companies in the city, highlighting notable companies such as Benjamin Franklin’s Union Fire Co. and African American, Irish, and other ethnically segregated companies.

A life size graphic tree from the fire mark logo of the Mutual Insurance Company emerges from the wall, highlighting a story on the debate over insuring homes with trees in their yard.


Visitors see the fire mark plaques that used to hang on homes around Philadelphia and learn how to look for those still hanging above doors all around the historic parts of the city.

Volunteer firefighters enjoyed a social status that can seem surprising compared to our perception of firefighting today. Regalia and memorabilia from the balls and parades that they attended are displayed with the stately sound of parade marches playing in the background.


Visitors also learn more about the rivalries that emerged between some fire companies when social contentions began to affect their ability to do their jobs.

Along the back wall of the exhibition, there is a timeline of four historic fire trucks, each one bigger and more complex than the last. The metal grid behind the trucks forms an infographic of the amount of water each truck could carry.


An interactive along the timeline provides a chance for visitors to experience the difference between manual and steam-powered trucks. Visitors race against each other by operating a hand pump or loading virtual coal into an engine, with the steam engine inevitably pulling ahead.


In the next section of the exhibition, visitors experience the centralization of emergency response, a gradual transition that occurred through the 1800s and led to many changes in who responded to emergencies and how they did so.


Michael Aspen, a 14-year-old carpenter’s apprentice in Philadelphia in 1858, introduces the section by recounting his story of being in a carpentry shop fire and having the burn injuries he suffered treated at Pennsylvania Hospital. 

At this time professional medical services such as hospitals and ambulances were first established and quickly became an important part of responding to fire emergencies. Medical artifacts such as surgical tools, medicines, and bandage winders that would have been used treat a variety of fire injuries are displayed. Labels explore the founding of Philadelphia Hospital, the nation's first, and how it compares to modern hospitals.


A display of model burn injuries shows the popular remedies of the day and what happened when they succeeded or failed, including a special feature on local pioneering plastic surgeon Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter and his burn surgery.

Two large cases display a dynamic arrangement of firefighting gear and tools of the era, exploring their evolution and application. Stories include how fire hydrants and hoses evolved over time, how unfamiliar tools like fire grenades were used, and why things like ladders and helmets were designed they way they were.

The establishment of citywide waterworks proved extremely beneficial to firefighters, as it gave them a reliable and easily accessible water supply throughout a city. Philadelphia’s own Fairmount Waterworks beginning construction in 1799 and quickly grew. A digital map highlights the footprint of the waterworks over the years as visitors press a button. They can also see a section of this old water main in a nearby case.

The exhibition reaches its climax at the end of this section, where visitors are introduced to a scene: the afternoon of July 9, 1850 along the Vine Street Wharf in Northern Liberties. Visitors watch a reel of telegraph messages coming in that call for assistance and describe a terrible fire spreading rapidly across the neighborhood.


Stepping into a tall, square space, visitors are immersed in a large scale graphic scene created by floor to ceiling black and white illustrated scrims of the Vine Street neighborhood. The burning hay factory where the fire began appears to spark and burn as the fire is lit in flickering shades of red against the black and white scene.


A variety of interactives allow visitors of all ages to immerse themselves in the emergency. They can use a telegraph interactive to send messages to nearby cities like New York and Baltimore to ask for help. A replica period fire apparatus serves as an imaginative play structure for younger visitors. Donning period fire helmets, they can pretend to help put out the fire with hoses attached to the truck that come to life with blue light and water sounds.


Having developed an understand of what the Vine Street Wharf fire was after moving through the section, a bottle melted in the actual fire becomes a powerful, tangible symbol of the destruction of the fire for visitors as they see it on display.

The space contains several character narratives, including a nervous Philadelphia firefighter who wants to call for help, a business owner trying to save his life and livelihood, and a poor tenant family who receive a rare gift of public aid money to help rebuild the home they lost in the fire.


The final section of the exhibition shifts away from the chronological progression to examine flaws in the fire response system that raise critical questions about how we respond to fire and other emergencies in urban societies. The section fills a long, rectangular space broken up by angled walls that explore different issues.


The first of these subsections, "social flaws," focuses on the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, an abolitionist meeting house, to show how social issues and institutionalized prejudice can affect fire response. Visitors see tangible pieces of the profound story, including commemorative objects given to abolitionist survivors of the fire and fire companies who came to the assistance of the Hall – rare shows of support that testify to the lengths to which people had to go to try and respond to the fire when the mainstream system refused to help. Artifacts of the Nativist riots in the mid-19th century are also displayed to the sound of the “Anti-Hibernia Song," a march written in opposition to the Irish fire company.

The next subsection focuses on the infrastructure issues that put cities at risk for fire and made response more difficult.

Wires span across a wall from a 19th century electrical pole graphic. A fallen wire sways and sparks dangerously, calling visitors attention to the story of a power outage in Newark in 1891 that shows how wire grids were a dangerous fire hazard. 

At the end of the section there is a talkback table
where visitors can respond to and read other people’s thoughts on a selection of critical questions, such as “Do we lose a sense of community as our technology advances?” and “What types of problems affect quality fire response today?” 

City planning could go along way at preventing fire risk in major cities. William Penn accounted for this in his planning of Philadelphia, and an original map of the city showcases his efforts. It is contrasted with the cities of New York and Chicago, which both faced 'great fires' over the 18th and 19th century.


The conclusion focuses on modern fire preparedness to connect the content of the exhibition to visitors’ own lives.


Visitors see a series of key preparedness facts and can take home preparedness resources such as a safety checklist and a resident info window sticker.


Fire safety equipment is important in fire emergencies, but people often don't know how to use it. A wall of interactive equipment including a mock fire extinguisher and safety ladder allow visitors to practice using the tools in order to help them feel more comfortable with them if they ever need to use them in a real emergency. Labels provide visitors with friendly, informative, and clear directions on things like how often fire alarms should be tested and what to say when calling 9-1-1. Accessible preparedness techniques are addressed for each of the elements, with alternative methods presented for those who may be unable to use the traditional resource. 

The gallery’s real fire door is featured as an object, with a panel explaining the origin of fire escapes.

explore the project more...

exhibition development

big idea

Early industrial Americans tell us in their “own words” about their changing expectations of fire emergencies.



What happens when there's a fire in your neighborhood in 1805? Through firsthand accounts of civilians both saved and ignored by the fire response system, historical artifacts of firefighting technology, and interactive experiences, this exhibition shows visitors how people experienced and responded to fires in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.



  • Primary: Families with children 5th grade+

  • Secondary: Families with children 4th grade and below (including younger siblings of 5th grade+)

  • Additional: Families with a member with a sensory-processing disorder (SPD)

learning goals (visitors will...)

  • Analyze how modern emergency response has evolved from its origins and practices in Early Industrial America.

  • Make connections between their own lives and the stories of regular people living through fire emergencies in Early Industrial America.

  • Empathize with a diverse group of people who have suffered because of bias in fire response over time.

  • Assess and create personal emergency preparations in programming.


experiential goals (visitors will...)


  • Form an emotional connection through stories of historical characters.

  • Feel the sense of urgency of being in an emergency situation.


  • Engage intergenerationally with members of their group through collaborative activities and conversational prompts.

  • Be more aware of and opposed to the bias present in emergency response.


  • Listen to the stories of historical characters  facing emergencies.

  • Hear sounds of alarms, carriages, and more which individuals from the past would have heard in an emergency situation.

bubble diagram

floor plan






graphic schedule