The Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park

When Patricia Wellenbach was brought in as a consultant to rescue the Please Touch Museum from a financially perilous position in 2015, her firm hand and business acumen were hailed.

Wellenbach is widely credited with lifting the Philadelphia children’s museum out of financial ruin when it faced $60 million in debt. After launching a massive fundraising campaign, she navigated the institution out of bankruptcy. In 2016, she was appointed president and CEO.

But according to more than a dozen former high-level employees and a former museum trustee, Wellenbach also has created a stifling management culture that can sometimes feel tyrannical. Despite letters sent to human resources and to trustees, they said there has been no substantive intervention from the Please Touch board.

“She was a tyrant,” said Keith Whiteman, who briefly served as Wellenbach’s executive assistant. “I just saw a lot of things that wouldn’t fly in corporate America.”

In January 2018, Whiteman outlined his grievances in writing and said he sent them to the board. “As Trish’s executive assistant, I was subjected to her ire on a daily basis,” he wrote in the letter, which also went to now-retired HR director Judy Meyer. “When Trish was upset she’d lash out at whomever was nearest, frequently … myself.”

One ex-development staffer who worked at the museum for almost two decades described the experience in an interview with Billy Penn. “I love my Please Touch family,” they said, but in their “last year and half, I could have cared less about anybody that came in and left because it was a revolving door. It was really hard to get to know people.”

Paul Birtel, one of the people who walked out that door, managed the museum membership department for two years, according to his LinkedIn profile. At the end of 2019, he quit with a biting resignation letter obtained by Billy Penn.

“Just like the dozens of other managers that have left voluntarily before me, I leave not because of a better job offer somewhere else,” Birtel wrote in the letter, addressing Wellenbach. “I leave because of your gross incompetence and the hostile work environment you have created through your lack of ownership of your failures and mistreatment of your staff.”

All told, 17 current and former people in management or administrative positions at the museum shared similar stories with a reporter over the past year.

Between 2017 and 2019, before any pandemic disruptions, the museum lost at least 13 managers and directors, according to in-person interviews and documents reviewed by Billy Penn. Reviewing the rate of turnover, human resource experts said it was unusual for this kind of institution, and potentially expensive as well.

“Ms. Wellenbach denies these allegations and the implication of these questions,” Please Touch Museum spokesperson Tracy Curvan wrote in response to an inquiry. “Leading an organization out of deep crisis sometimes requires difficult decisions to be made in a highly pressurized environment. Those decisions were executed fairly, with respect to all of the museum’s employees and in service to the museum’s mission.”

Wellenbach declined multiple requests from Billy Penn for a personal interview or comment, directing all questions to Curvan.

Most people interviewed for this article requested anonymity to comply with nondisclosure clauses outlined in their severance packages. Some also cited fear of retribution, given Wellenbach’s prominence in the Philadelphia nonprofit and philanthropy world.

Wellenbach serves or has served on several boards. Last month she was named the first woman board chair in the history of Thomas Jefferson University. She is a trustee at the Reinvestment Fund and a named collaborator and colleague at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

She’s also a member of the Mayor’s Cultural Advisory Board, appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney. Through a spokesperson, the mayor declined to comment for this article.

Former employees said Please Touch board members were made aware of Wellenbach’s contentious relationship with management staff. A former board trustee described unsuccessful efforts to get fellow board members to investigate the high turnover, the pace of which the trustee described as “unheard of.”

“In meetings with high-level trustees, I mentioned there’s a culture of abuse at high levels in the museum,” the former trustee told Billy Penn, describing it as “overwhelming and continuous.”

In response to an email from Billy Penn last week, museum spokesperson Curvan said, “The museum remains unable to comment on individual personnel matters.”

The Please Touch Museum Credit: Abdullah Pullin

Financial success at a cost, ex-staff say

Wellenbach has generally been considered a savior for the Please Touch Museum, having rescued it from the brink of financial collapse.

Budgetary woes at the institution, which was founded in 1976, date back to its expensive 2008 move from Center City into Fairmount Park’s historic Memorial Hall.

The museum filed for bankruptcy in fall 2015, seeking to dissolve about $60 million in debt, and Wellenbach was brought in as an advisor. She helped launch a massive fundraising campaign that raised $8 million of its $10 million goal by the March 2016 deadline. Bondholders agreed to settle at a reduced amount, and Wellenbach was named museum president and CEO.

The City of Philadelphia was one of the bondholders that opted to accept less than the $500,000-plus they were owed by the museum.

One former longtime development staffer, speaking of their initial impression of Wellenbach, called the CEO “brilliant,” noting, “She’s got the skill set that they needed to get through that bankruptcy … because she was willing to do…  not fun things.”

Wellenbach fired that person in 2018.

“When Trish came on, she was great,” said another ex-employee who’d worked in education at Please Touch for nearly two decades under four different presidents. “She was asking questions that no president’s ever asked before. It was like, ‘Oh my God, finally there’s an adult at the table.’”

Just one year later, that employee was asked by Wellenbach to resign. “She [seemed] to have a vision for the company, and I really don’t know what happened. She just started to change.”

During her tenure, Wellenbach has been credited with launching several initiatives praised for their inclusivity.

In 2018, the museum launched its inaugural Pride Month celebration. The same year it incorporated cultural programming for things like Juneteenth and Holi. The following year it brought to Philly a nationally recognized America to Zanzibar exhibit highlighting Muslim culture.

And even amid financial difficulties, Wellenbach maintained the free or deeply discounted $2 admission fee for ACCESS cardholders and students in the Philadelphia school district.

Like many places forced by the pandemic to close, Please Touch suffered financially during COVID. In August, three-quarters of employees were laid off, reducing staff to just 18 people. Overall, it lost a reported $6 million in revenue during the 13-month closure. Wellenbach buoyed the finances with support from the Paycheck Protection Program and didn’t touch the museum endowment, she told the Philadelphia Business Journal.

The museum reopened on April 8, 2021 after a 56-week pandemic closure with a reported 36 workers, and offered free admission to residents of the nearby Parkside neighborhood.

In an emailed statement, recently appointed museum board chair Christine Campbell, who assumed the title in 2021, praised Wellenbach’s management through the health crisis.

“Trish has consistently guided the museum and its staff with fortitude and empathy,” Campbell said. “As the museum reopens to the public … our entire board is grateful for Trish’s stewardship and fully committed to our mission of creating play-based learning opportunities for young children as they begin to re-engage in the world post-pandemic.”

Acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole, Pa. acting Physician General Denise Johnson, Please Touch Museum CEO Patricia Wellenbach, and acting Secretary of Human Services for Pa. Meg Snead at a press conference discussing COVID guidelines for children’s safety at the museum in 2021 Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘Bullying and abusive behavior’ with changing expectations

Wellenbach didn’t attend every Please Touch Museum staff meeting, according to former employees, but when she did, the air was full of anxiety. It was there, they said, that her most public rebukes would rain down.

“People were like uh-oh, who’s the target today?” one former high-level employee explained. “If she showed up, someone was going down.”

That ex-employee recalled being “dressed down” by Wellenbach in front of about 20 others, taken to task for something they said was outside of normal protocol: failing to send an email note to part-time floor staff in addition to managers.

“It was very masterfully done. She can twist things to make it sound like I had shot somebody. It’s incredibly belittling, meant to create fear. It’s very calculated, especially in public.”

Nonprofits and the arts have long struggled with workplace culture, said Ivy Buchan of Helix Strategies, a Philadelphia fundraising and leadership firm.

“I don’t think that’s a big secret,” Buchan said. “I think it gets more attention because we put the nonprofit sector on a pedestal, just because their mission is that more emotional piece.”

Former development staff member Simon Kaufman worked at the Please Touch Museum for nearly two years, from January 2016 to December 2017, according to his LinkedIn and the date on his resignation letter obtained by Billy Penn.

“When I asked Trish for a title change to reflect the fact that I was responsible for foundation proposals and reports, she screamed at me,” Kaufman wrote in the letter. “I told her at the time that I didn’t want more money, I wanted some clarity on my job responsibilities.”

Reviews of the museum at the online job site Glassdoor, which can serve as a sounding board for disgruntled employees, show people who identified as former staff taking note of the leadership changes. “They laid off/fired/pushed out all of the worthwhile people they had on the executive level,” one person posted in early 2016.

Some ex-Please Touch employees said they were fired by Wellenbach or felt forced to resign despite satisfactory job performance.

One former high-ranking staff member said they were fired even after exceeding their fundraising goal by more than 20%.

Another former high-level manager said they were meeting role requirements but still were placed on a “performance improvement plan” for which Wellenbach failed to outline goals. They described months of “bullying” and “harassment” from Wellenbach and said their performance was consistently criticized despite satisfactory metrics. After being put on the performance improvement plan, they said they were met with silence when asking for specific improvement goals.

“[Trish] said to me, ‘I don’t have time for that,’ ” the former staffer said. “So there was no way for me to improve it. I still tried my hardest to, you know … it often felt like I was trying to win her over.”

The ordeal culminated in a surprise meeting with Wellenbach and the human resources director where the employee learned that not only would they have to switch from a traditional work week to a Tuesday-through-Saturday schedule, but that their role was being entirely restructured.

They would have to reapply, the employee was told, with no leg up on any outside candidates.

“That felt like, oh my God, they just want me out of this.” Some time later, after reaching out to HR with questions, the employee remembered being told, “there’s no longer a place for you.”

A former education department employee said Wellenbach told them to resign following contention over a change in job description. They provided documents showing Wellenbach removed the “director” designation from their title, but said at the same time, she gave them what they felt was more directorial responsibility. During a subsequent performance review, Wellenbach allegedly slammed her fist on the table, refused to talk further, and ultimately placed the employee on a 90-day paid suspension.

“It was a very strange punishment,” said the ex-staffer, who took a severance package soon thereafter. “Trish never spoke to me… No ‘Thank you for your 17 years.’ … Nothing.”

Board members were repeatedly made aware of what was happening inside the museum, according to people interviewed. A former Please Touch marketing director who resigned said attempts to get trustees to intervene proved fruitless.

“We went to the board, we had evidence, there were letters that were written. They also never held her accountable for her actions,” the ex-director said, adding that they suffered anxiety-related bladder issues and weight gain while on the job. “I was so jaded by the way she treated me…I had to leave the state. I had to start over.”

One person who worked in development at Please Touch told Billy Penn they sent a detailed resignation letter to the board in 2017. The employee was told that the board started investigating. As a result, another former high-ranking employee familiar with the matter said, Wellenbach was instructed by the board to meet with every director at the museum. Ultimately, though, both people said, nothing came of the process.

Billy Penn’s outreach to former board chair and current trustee Benjamin Johnson, who led the board through late 2020, was redirected to museum spokesperson Curvan.

Multiple attempts to reach other past and current board members, some of whom former employees said knew about staff dissatisfaction with Wellenbach, were either redirected or unsuccessful.

The former Please Touch Museum site was demolished in 2016 Credit: Steve Ives / EOTS Flickr Group

Not ‘a bad person,’ but staff transition was ‘hard’

Before taking the helm at Please Touch, Wellenbach served nearly three years as CEO at Green Tree School and Services, a Philly-based special education agency for youth on the autism spectrum and children who are emotionally disturbed.

One anonymous former Green Tree employee who worked there between 2008 and 2016 said they believed Wellenbach was brought in to clean up finances.

“I respect her as a person and what she does,” the former worker said. However, they said they left Green Tree because Wellenbach’s leadership style shifted the workplace culture. “She brought a very corporate culture to Green Tree, which, before her, was a very family-oriented culture.”

As an example, they recalled that after the school moved to its current location in East Germantown, employees were prohibited from decorating their new spaces with photos of family and friends or plants. The new atmosphere wasn’t hostile or harassing, but it “was a very hard transition for a lot of the staff. I didn’t get the same feeling going into work as I did before.”

The staffer added: “I don’t think she’s a bad person, I just think her personality is suited for a certain type of environment.”

Another person who worked with Wellenbach at both Green Tree and the Please Touch Museum said there was a sharp difference between her attitudes at the two workplaces.

Wellenbach’s behavior at the museum confused them. “There were some through lines,” they said, “but I certainly would not have wanted to work with anybody like the person I knew at the Please Touch Museum. She was not like that before.”

The former museum trustee who spoke with Billy Penn said Wellenbach’s approach was unsuited for cultural institutions like Please Touch.

“She’s really good as it relates to business, but she’s not from the museum world is what people will tell you,” the former trustee said. “The heart and compassion and the love around aspects of the art is lost with her. I think that’s what the big issue is.”

The Please Touch Museum Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Workplace reputation could have potential ‘ripple effect’

A list compiled from LinkedIn and archived web pages shows at least 13 upper-level staff who exited the Please Touch Museum after Wellenbach took over and before the pandemic arrived.

  1. Director of performance and events: August 2000 – June 2017
  2. Programs and learning manager: August 2001 – February 2017
  3. Director of collections, content and research: July 2003 – July 2017
  4. Marketing manager: May 2016 – March 2018
  5. Membership manager: 3 months in 2017
  6. Communications manager: November 2017 – May 2019
  7. Marketing and communications director: April 2017 – February 2019
  8. Museum experience manager: 2017 – May 2019
  9. Chief engagement officer: January 2018 – February 2019
  10. Membership manager: January 2018 – October 2019
  11. Director of research and content development: September 2018 – October 2019
  12. Marketing director: January 2019 – September 2019
  13. Communications director: May 2019 – November 2019

Human resources expert Sulaiman Rahman, owner of recruitment and diversity consulting firm DiverseForce, said such dramatic turnover in the nonprofit and museum industry is outside the norm.

“That is unusual,” Rahman said of any turnover rate like the one described at the museum, adding that replacing managerial-level staff can be costly.

Rahman added that the most expensive retention costs are invisible, like temporary productivity loss and time spent onboarding and training. Moreover, Rahman said, an institution could pay the price in sullied reputation.

Former Please Touch staffers who spoke with Billy Penn said they began speaking out now for two reasons: They wanted to do the right thing at a time when cultural institutions and their leaders are being held accountable, and they wanted to stand up for current and future museum employees.

“This is not okay,” one former staffer said. “It’s not okay at the Please Touch Museum. It’s not okay at any organization.”

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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...