PHILADELPHIA — In the 1970s, Wells Fargo & Co. decided that its corporate history was also one of its key assets. The company had been founded more than 120 years earlier as a banking and express firm, and for much of its early history, it was in the business of moving things, such as gold and money, across a country that had few reliable roads or rail lines. Central to Wells Fargo’s early business model was the stagecoach, which became both a symbol of the company and a national icon.
So the company started a history department, and now operates 12 museums in cities nationwide. Historic stagecoaches, lovingly preserved and brilliantly painted, are among the objects in exhibitions that explore the colonial settlement of the West, the gold rush, the telegraph, and the emergence of the modern system of banking and currency.
Wells Fargo is now a multinational financial services behemoth and the fourth-largest bank in the world by market capitalization. But along the way, it has been plagued by scandals, paying out billions of dollars in fines. The company became even more notorious in 2016 when it was revealed that it had created millions of fake accounts on behalf of unsuspecting customers.
I found no mention of any of that history — more than a decade of corporate fraud, malfeasance and corruption — in the Philadelphia branch of the Wells Fargo History Museum. It is housed in one of the city’s most imposing buildings, a high-rise tower on Broad Street with giant, arched entryways set into its Beaux-Arts facade. It looks and feels like a small museum you might find at a state park visitors center, with historic objects in well-made cases, interactive displays, maps, documents and text panels on the wall, and brochures in multiple languages. There’s a small section aimed at younger visitors, where they can try on 19th-century clothes, sit in a mock-up of a stagecoach, or have their picture taken and emailed with the small stagecoach in the background.
The Philadelphia exhibition follows the history of the company from its origins to the age of modern banking, including among its display a slightly archaic-looking money access center, a precursor of today’s ATM. But all of this evokes the definite sense that Wells Fargo is more comfortable with its 19th- and early-20th-century history, when it was essential to creating commercial, logistical and financial networks across the vast reaches of the still-expanding United States.
If there’s any direct discussion of the costs of this, especially to Native American communities, it isn’t prominently on view. An electronic map showing the emergence of rail and stagecoach networks hits the museum’s sweet spot: Feathery lines begin to branch out from eastern cities such as Philadelphia near the end of the 18th century, expanding through the 1850s, until the nation looks well stitched together more than a century later. There isn’t anything false about this information, but the implicit message is the same as you may remember from grade-school history classes a generation ago: The continent was empty and barren until technology, commerce and the white man, bringing “civilization” and democracy, bound it together with rails and roads.
The Wells Fargo museum is a corporate project, and it isn’t shy about advertising connections between corporate and national identity. Near the historic coach display, a wall panel cites the phrase on U.S. currency, “e pluribus unum” — out of many, one — and concludes: “Likewise, Wells Fargo & Company was built from the pioneering vision and accomplishments of many contributors and companies now part of our worldwide diversified financial services company.” In place of discussion of the company’s role in recent financial scandals, including the colossal losses to ordinary Americans in the 2008 home mortgage crisis and accusations of modern-day “redlining,” the museum substitutes an appealing citation, stressing egalitarian values, from an 1888 guide to Wells Fargo agents: “The most polite and gentlemanly treatment of all customers, however insignificant their business, is insisted upon. Proper respect must be shown to all — let them be men, women or children, rich or poor, white or black . . .”
The creation of Wells Fargo museums was part of a larger corporate trend that wasn’t entirely about self-exculpatory presentations of history. In the 1970s and beyond, some corporate leaders began to realize that the history of the organizations they ran was intertwined with the larger history of the country, and that giving access to corporate archives was essential to constructing a comprehensive account of U.S. development. That came with risks, and it has proceeded fitfully and erratically. Still, the impulse — to open up private history to public study — was a worthy one.
But a related revelation — that corporate history was a commercial asset to be leveraged and monetized — led to the glossy, history-as-entertainment ventures like the Wells Fargo museums. They now fall into the category of “things that feel like museums,” institutions that use the rhetoric and teaching tools of serious museums to create museum-like spaces that traffic in self-interested or manipulated truths. These spaces may be more popular than genuine museums because they’re better focused on user experience and don’t require visitors to consider uncomfortable or challenging narratives.
Last year, when Wells Fargo was struggling to repair its reputation, the company launched an advertisement with the tag line: “Wells Fargo, Established 1852, Reestablished 2018.” It began and ended with a Pony Express rider dashing across an open plain, and featured footage of a Wells Fargo stagecoach and historic images of steamships and trains. It all could have been culled from a Wells Fargo museum, and the message was the same: Never mind that recent unpleasantness; we are as reliable as all the old myths of America you love so dearly.
Wells Fargo History Museum, 123 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. wellsfargohistory.com/museums/philadelphia.