An Organized Jumble
For the most part, the exhibition organization works, even if some of the correspondences seem strained. One room, for example, is titled “Ardent and Dutiful” and is paired with the Franklin quote “Man is a sociable being.” Its labels speak of his duty and affection toward his family, but suggest that his greatest ardor was reserved for his friends. This understates the case. Franklin was long estranged from his son, William Franklin, a loyalist during the Revolutionary War. He also spent years apart from his wife, Deborah, while serving the American colonies in London, and declined to return to Philadelphia even when she was ill. (No mention is made of his special relationship with his youngest sister, Jane, the subject of a fine new book by Harvard University historian Jill Lepore.) But the artifacts here are first-rate: a Franklin family Bible, armchairs he once owned, an early 1760s glass armonica that he invented (with a related, if somewhat baffling, musical interactive).
A second room associates “Ambitious & Rebellious” with the quotation “Be frugal and industrious, and you will be free.” Industry and rebellion don’t make for a natural pairing, any more than sociability and duty, but never mind. This room concentrates on Franklin’s early career as an innovative printer and postmaster, as well as some of his satirical writings under pseudonyms like “Silence Dogood” and “Alice Addertongue.” Oddly, it also includes an animation (anchored by a life-size Franklin statue) that focuses on Franklin’s 1774 shaming before the British Privy Council in connection with leaked letters and colonial rioting—a complicated story, especially out of context. Historians consider the encounter a key event in the evolution of Franklin’s pro-independence views, but it might have fit better in the space devoted to his diplomatic efforts.
The three other principal galleries seem more coherent. “Motivated to improve,” based on the quotation “What good have I done today?”, dwells on Franklin’s various civic betterment schemes, including the founding of firefighting and insurance companies, the nation’s first successful lending library, a school for enslaved children, Pennsylvania Hospital and what is now the University of Pennsylvania. “Curious & Full of Wonder,” derived from “A thirst for knowledge,” presents Franklin the internationally renowned scientist, highlighting his electrical contraptions and his contributions to fields as diverse as botany and meteorology.
“Strategic and Persuasive,” related to the quotation “Life is a kind of chess,” gives us, finally, Franklin the statesman and politician—the Franklin who seems most to belong in Independence National Historical Park. A flipbook and a touch-screen computer game reinforce his early, failed attempts to foster colonial unity, his role in negotiating treaties with England and France, and his editing of Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. (It was Franklin’s suggestion that made those famous truths “self-evident.”)
Here, too, is the only exhibit that seems to explore a historical controversy in depth. A touch-screen interactive details Franklin’s involvement with slavery, including his ownership of slaves and his leadership of Pennsylvania’s abolitionist society. It asks visitors to weigh evidence about Franklin’s racial attitudes, a cumbersome, time-consuming process that seems to lead to the conclusion that his views evolved over time. (The interactive’s final text says that historians still debate even this.)
The exhibition winds down with a room evoking Franklin’s library and a corridor devoted to his legacy. Projections quote his unfinished autobiography, a world classic, and a diagram points out other Franklin-â¨related sites in Philadelphia, including â¨nearby Christ Church Burial Ground, where he and Deborah have been reunited.
All in all, the new museum is a reasonable complement to the rest of Independence National Historical Park, whose attractions include the excellent Liberty Bell Center, the irreplaceable Independence Hall, the disappointing President’s House and the struggling National Constitution Center. At its best, the museum’s organized jumble of exhibits convinces us anew of Franklin’s multiplicity—and his singularity. All the place lacks is the exhilarating intellectual payoff of a critical edge.