An Organized Jumble

An Organized Jumble

For all its postmodern flair, the revamped Benjamin Franklin Museum is surprisingly traditional and constrained.


During the Age of Enlightenment, museums were cabinets of curiosities designed to showcase the inherent oddity or beauty of individual objects. Charles Willson Peale’s late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Philadelphia museum was a celebrated example, with its organized jumble of mounted animals, fossils, costumes, models, inventions and paintings. Peale’s 1822 self-portrait The Artist in His Museum shows its subject lifting a stage curtain to reveal bird specimens, portraits, a mastodon skeleton and a family of visitors. A painter’s palette and brushes rest on a table beside him, underlining the artifice of the scene.

Peale’s museum reflected a larger culture in which disciplinary divisions had not yet hardened. Benjamin Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, one of the many organizations he founded (and at one point home to Peale’s enterprise), concerned itself with both humanistic and scientific inquiry. With interests in everything from electricity and ocean currents to statecraft and the art of satire, Franklin himself embodied the polymath ideal. 

Our more specialized, pedigreed age insists on separate history, science and art museums, each with its own curators and conventions of display. Art museums, to a large extent, remain cabinets of curiosities, with objects in the permanent collection likely grouped by country, period and artist (though thematic arrangements are becoming more common). Special exhibitions may tell larger stories about history or culture, and newer installations—such as the Art of the Americas Wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—may use multimedia devices and touch-screen technology to enrich their displays. But the object remains primary, as it did in old natural history collections. 

By contrast, at science centers such as San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the emphasis is on storytelling and explanation, facilitated by replicas, games, videos, sound effects, touch-screen displays, immersive environments and other techniques in the modern museum armamentarium. Here the traditional artifact has all but vanished, replaced by experiences like the Franklin Institute’s iconic walk through a giant plastic heart. 

History museums have occupied an often contested, and therefore endlessly fascinating, middle ground. In Who Owns America’s Past?, Robert C. Post, a curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History, tries to define the battle and its stakes. He describes the Smithsonian Institution as ricocheting between two poles, which he labels “artifact-centered neo-traditionalism” and “postmodern contextualism.”

Though a useful starting point, Post’s scheme is inadequate as an explanation of evolving trends in museum display. It conflates not just design and content but two diametrically opposed approaches: the construction of master narratives to link disparate artifacts, and the dismantling of those narratives. His precise views on just how history museums should tell stories and exhibit their collections remain murky. 

Consider the pivotal instance of the Smithsonian’s failed Enola Gay anniversary exhibition, which exposed the messy process of producing historical narratives in a museum setting. The show’s planned centerpiece was an uncommonly powerful artifact: part of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Fifty years on, that artifact was supposed to introduce a complicated historiographical debate about the decision to use the bomb and its consequences—
a goal the show accomplished, in a very crude sense, before it could be mounted.

In fact, it never was. In 1995, after considerable script revision and protests from both left and right, the exhibition was canceled and then reconceived in a radically curtailed form. Post oscillates between blaming the exhibition curators for awkward wording and historical “revisionism” and faulting critics for derailing the show. (My reporting on the controversy, concentrating on the role of internal disagreements within the National Air and Space Museum, can be found on the Alicia Patterson Foundation website, at argument-postmodern-museum.) Its promising title notwithstanding, Who Owns America’s Past? turns out to be more an insider’s account of personnel shuffles and individual exhibitions at the Smithsonian than an engaging philosophical exploration of the “problem of history” in the country’s national museum.

Yet the foundations of the postmodern history museum are worth pondering. At its most ambitious, such a museum offers two distinct challenges: to the primacy of the authentic object, and to a curator-driven historical narrative. The artifact, in this new museum, becomes just another aid to storytelling, of a piece with a video animation or a computer game. And the exhibition’s story line is revealed as contingent and replaceable—or perhaps fragmented into multiple competing narratives. 

In some cases, museum professionals cede control of the content to relevant communities or stakeholders, a choice that can produce challenging new perspectives or narrative incoherence. With its superb collection, innovative displays and neglect of chronological history, the Smithsonian’s landmark National Museum of the American Indian exemplifies both outcomes.

* * *

It is against this backdrop that the National Park Service has sought to reim-
agine the outmoded Benjamin Franklin Museum, built in the Old City section of Philadelphia for the nation’s 1976 bicentennial. The underground museum is part of the award-winning Franklin Court complex, designed by Robert Venturi and John Rauch, with Denise Scott Brown, pioneers of postmodern architecture.

The complex continues to embody postmodernist ideas. Revamped for $23 million in public and private funds, the museum, in concert with the court and related buildings, intriguingly juxtaposes the authentic with the representational. The somewhat noisy 9,500-square-foot exhibition, which reopened on September 20, employs a diverse set of teaching tools, from elegant interactive exhibits and animations to clever design and Franklin-related artifacts. The emphasis is on appealing to family audiences, and three self-guided tours, using a squirrel mascot named Skuggs and laminated handouts, are aimed specifically at children.

The exhibition story line is thematic rather than chronological, relying for organization on Franklin’s own words and presumed character traits—an interesting, if occasionally confusing, choice. The revamp is a competent, professional job, and there are many small pleasures along the way. But the end result is surprisingly traditional and constrained: a hat tip to the “great man” theory of history that sheds little new light on the controversies of the time. 

The Franklin experience begins well, as it always has. Entering the newly landscaped courtyard from the 300 block of Chestnut Street, visitors encounter two “ghost structures,” steel outlines of Franklin’s home and the print shop he built for his grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache. Within these skeletal dwellings are vitrines that highlight the buildings’ actual eighteenth-century foundations, Franklin’s privy and other remnants of the past. Pavement stones are engraved with quotations from letters exchanged by Franklin and his common-law wife, Deborah, as well as others, about the construction of the house in the mid-1760s and its furnishing—another layer of echoes. 

Other riffs on reality and representation prevail in the red-brick buildings fronting Market Street. Franklin’s original post office, still in use, features Franklin-
related displays. In the neighboring print shop and bookbindery, a costumed employee of Independence National Historical Park demonstrates the printing of the Declaration of Independence on a reproduction of an eighteenth-century printing press. (A third building, housing an archaeological exhibition, “Fragments of Franklin Court,” has been closed due to the federal budget cuts.)

The rectilinear Benjamin Franklin Museum, on the court’s west end, has been expanded and updated by Quinn Evans Architects of Washington, DC. To the original red-brick structure, so consonant with its context, the firm has added a rust-colored “fretted glass” facade and an entrance portal with steel columns. The new facade, interlaced with transparent glass panes, is assembled in a Flemish bond design, evoking the bricks it replaced. 

The metaphor of Franklin’s house dominates the exhibition, designed by the London firm of Casson Mann and curated by a Philadelphia company, Remer & Talbott. (Rosalind Remer and Page Talbott served as executive director and associate director, respectively, of the 2006 Benjamin Franklin tercentenary celebration, for which Talbott curated the artifact-rich show “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World.”) Inside the museum, between the gift shop and the ticket counter, visitors are invited to admire Franklin Court through a “view window.” An excellent touch-screen interactive display summarizes historical knowledge about Franklin’s house (demolished in 1812) and his possessions, including a library of more than 4,000 books. 

Visitors reach the exhibition proper via an elevator or by descending a set of slate stairs. The underground space, which once included faux audio of the founding fathers and other gadgetry, has been completely transformed, but it remains a rather dark and forbidding setting. 

The designers situate exhibition content in galleries resembling stage sets, with a missing fourth wall. In lieu of representing specific rooms in a house, each of these galleries relates to an aspect of Franklin’s character—and, it turns out, his accomplishments in different fields. For those in need of chronological orientation, a Franklin time line is affixed to benches in the exhibition space; but its angled, horizontal positioning makes it difficult to read.

The show recycles animations from the tercentenary exhibition, including a debate between Franklin and John Adams about the value of fresh air. It adds games involving the matching of images and facts, with each success earning a green light and a validating “Huzzah.” Replicas—such as touchable ink balls—are interspersed with the authentic artifacts they mirror. On view are various Franklin possessions and inventions, including late eighteenth-century bifocals and a cast-iron fireplace based on the Franklin stove.

* * *

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-
related sites in Philadelphia, including 
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.

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