Benjamin Franklin Museum Opens This Weekend, Free Of Its Old Quirks

 

Franklin library or bust | Photo: Bradley Maule

Franklin library or bust | Photo: Bradley Maule

Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah. Led by Ralph Archbold, those three cheers officially rang in the new Benjamin Franklin Museum, opening this Saturday.

Closed for the last two years for a complete overhaul, the former Underground Museum at Franklin Court is no more. The Venturi Scott Brown ghost house remains gracefully untouched in the courtyard, as do the archaeological portals and mulberry tree, but gone are the mirrors, the neon, the marionettes, the princess phones so central to the old museum’s identity. It seems even the National Park Service wants to distance Philadelphia from its Bicentennial flop.

Also gone is the free admission. The revamped museum now incurs a $5 fee, $2 for children under 16. Children comprise a large part of the target audience, evidenced by the prevalence of games, touchscreen activities, and most noticeably, Skuggs the Squirrel, the museum’s children guide who has his own Twitter account.

The museum’s $23 million renovation (half public funds and half gifts from Pew, Penn, Lenfest, et al) looks every penny of it. It’s sleek, interactive-y, and very modern.

The neon-and-mirror room of the former museum, relegated to flashbacks | Photo: Bradley Maule, 2003

The neon-and-mirror room of the former museum, relegated to flashbacks | Photo: Bradley Maule, 2003

The old museum’s lost modernness, its primary charm, ultimately begat its demise. Independence National Historical Park officials are quick to call the former features dated, even weird. Indeed, the mirrored hall with neon flashing the words INVENTOR, STATESMAN, AUTHOR, and the like—that was some tripped out 1976 stuff. But like its Bicentennial brother, the Liberty Bell Pavilion, it wasn’t deemed worth saving. At all.

Karie Diethorn, curator at Independence National Historical Park, says that everything from the old museum was trashed. “We saved all the artifacts and kept all the replicas of the Franklin inventions,” Diethorn says. But everything else—neon, mirrors, phones, marionettes—”it was discarded. Nothing was salvageable.”

Perhaps more importantly, it proved bureaucratically too difficult to salvage. “This stuff is government property, so it can’t be just given to anyone,” Diethorn replied after I mentioned the neon artist and collector Len Davidson. “The only way the federal government can divest itself of property is to sell it through the General Services Administration,” Diethorn explains. “The decision was that it was not cost effective.” There is, however, a neon sculpture of Franklin’s bust for $495 in the all new gift shop.

This animated feature, of figures discussing monarchy and tyranny, is not unlike the old "Franklin on the World Stage" marionette exhibit | Photo: Bradley Maule

This animated feature, of figures discussing monarchy and tyranny, is not unlike the old “Franklin on the World Stage” marionette exhibit | Photo: Bradley Maule

To be sure, the new museum will have no trouble attracting visitors. After all, it’s the only museum devoted to the life of perhaps the greatest American—the most influential and inspiring Philadelphian—and $5 won’t break anyone’s bank. And the exhibitions, organized by five of Franklin’s traits—dutiful, ambitious, motivated, curious, persuasive—digs deep into his legacy and even his complexity. One of the interactive screens addresses Franklin’s curious stance on slavery, and after reading various observations and accounts of his family’s ownership of slaves and Franklin’s later-in-life abolitionist tendencies, the visitor is left to render his or her own judgment. The last room of the 20,000 square foot museum evokes Franklin’s library at his home just upstairs, with animated projections relating to his autobiography and life in Philadelphia.

Franklin’s legacy and proverbs have filled books since even before his death in 1790. But at the sparkling new Benjamin Franklin Museum, Lewis Mumford comes to mind: “Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.” Mid-century modernism has at last gained the favor of the preservation community, but at least here in Philadelphia, the 1970s are literally disposable. The quirky, psychedelic interior of the old Underground Museum at Franklin Court, opened only 37 years ago, joins the Philadelphia Life Insurance Company (PLICO) Building, New Market, The Vet, and The Spectrum in the landfill, replaced by the latest technology—for now.

Like the frontline technology of the Underground Museum before it, the Benjamin Franklin Museum’s own advanced technology will eventually grow dated and need to be replaced. Perhaps it will be salvageable this time.

* * *

The new Benjamin Franklin Museum at 314 Market Street opens this weekend, and the public gets a free preview on Saturday and Sunday before the $5 admission takes effect. Visit the museum’s web site HERE.

About the author

Bradley Maule is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland OR, Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.



2 Comments


  1. Hi Brad– Never fear, we\’ll always have the Mummers Museum! Nice meeting you yesterday…

  2. That\’s a shame, as I\’d hoped it would survive a little longer in political limbo and pass into Philly meta-museum status, like the Wagner Institute.

    It was fun in the mid-80s, when I was a kid and the princess phones were just starting to fail, but my family learned early on that the best thing to do was skip the 70s sound and light show and go right to the bottom, where the artifacts were displayed; there was so much more to be gained about Franklin from the things he owned and the things he invented than from the trundling doll show in the center of the upper level.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
A Fine And Public Space: Preservationists Revive Philadelphia's Historic Cemeteries As Vibrant Spaces For The Living

A Fine And Public Space: Preservationists Revive Philadelphia’s Historic Cemeteries As Vibrant Spaces For The Living

May 21, 2019  |  Vantage

New life is blooming at Philadelphia's historic cemeteries. Starr Herr-Cardillo has the story > more

Appetite For Deconstruction: North Philly Nonprofit Tackles Three Pressing Issues With One Program

Appetite For Deconstruction: North Philly Nonprofit Tackles Three Pressing Issues With One Program

May 17, 2019  |  News

Philly Reclaim brings sustainability, historic preservation, and job training together with its architectural salvage program. Kimberly Haas has the story > more

Arson & Archway Raise Awareness Of A 19th Century Architect

Arson & Archway Raise Awareness Of A 19th Century Architect

May 14, 2019  |  Vantage

Pauline Miller takes us on a journey from Old City to Mount Moriah Cemetery where the work of architect Stephen Decatur Button struggles for longevity > more

A Fond Farewell To Paley Library At Temple University

A Fond Farewell To Paley Library At Temple University

May 10, 2019  |  Last Light

Paley Library closed its doors to the public on Thursday after serving Temple University for 53 years. Michael Bixler says goodbye to the mid-century modern library with this photo essay > more

In Kensington, Old Textile Mill To Be Revived With Apartments

In Kensington, Old Textile Mill To Be Revived With Apartments

May 7, 2019  |  Vantage

Gotham Hosiery, once the country's most popular pantyhose manufacturer, quickly rose to fame and crashed even faster. Now, the nearly 100-year-old mill at 2nd and Norris is getting a residential makeover. Rob Masciantonio dives deep into the history of the old textile mill and details on plans for redevelopment > more

Al Capone's Cell At ESP Keeps Conservators On Their Toes

Al Capone’s Cell At ESP Keeps Conservators On Their Toes

May 2, 2019  |  News

At Eastern State Penitentiary, layers of history reveal more mysteries inside a famous gangster's old prison cell. Kimberly Haas has the details > more