America: It’s Like Britain, Only With Buttons

Welcome to If the Founding Fathers were the Beatles. I’ll start:

George Washington = John
Thomas Jefferson = Paul
John Adams = George
Benjamin Franklin = Ringo

You may think that George should be George and John should be John, but only Ben could be Ringo—the regular guy, the tinkerer, the one who gets along with everyone, who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.

Think fast: This week’s title. Who said it? Poor Richard or Richard Starkey?

Benjamin Franklin is the approachable—even lovable—Founder. It’s hard to imagine any of the others with a cartoon sidekick like Skuggs, the squirrel in a white wig and wire rim glasses (Lennon-like, I admit), ready to “show your family around the Benjamin Franklin Museum.” (Ben did care enough about squirrels to write an elegy for one, but his name was Mungo.)

Not to be confused with the Franklin Institute, Franklin Court—an innovative if low-profile unit of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia—was created for the Bicentennial by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. It reopened a week ago as the Benjamin Franklin Museum after a $24-million renovation by Carl Elefante of Quinn Evans Architects.

Riding shotgun for One If By Land Tours in the 1980s, I took thousands of New York City fifth-graders on Philadelphia daytrips. (I remember a Franklin Institute greeter who’d had enough asking me, “Don’t you have science museums in New York?”) My kids and I thought the original Franklin Court was terrific, charging down the ramp (no running!) to the underground museum and dialing up historic figures to hear what they had to say about Ben.

But the site lost its PoMo cool over the years and needed a makeover. Since it was originally a project of the legendary Venturi (Philadelphia-born, now 88), this was somewhat contentious. And the National Park Service was not in a position to fund it all, so money had to be raised from private sources (and there is now a fee, though I could bring my bus-fulls of eager beavers, if I still had any, for free).

The new museum retains most of Franklin Court’s above-ground features: the “ghost frames” and stone outlines marking where Franklin’s house, torn down in 1812, and his grandson’s printing shop stood, the periscope-like windows for foundation viewing, the house-related letter excerpts engraved onto flagstones. All new, however, are the interpretive approach and exhibitry underground, designed by a London firm, Casson Mann.

Plenty of families with young children were having fun last Sunday. They were watching animated woodcuts and Python-esque collages, playing historical video games (felled by typhus, I never reached Philadelphia), and turning plastic cogs to answer quizzes. Every few minutes, when someone got an answer right, you heard a recorded “Huzzah!” (said to be the 18th-century equivalent of “Awesome!”).

Apart from a small theater with an animation showing Ben writing his famous autobiography (nicely done, I would have liked more), the museum was conceptualized in five sections. Each makes use of a color-coded icon representing a facet of Ben’s character: a kite for Curious and Full of Wonder, a fire bucket for Motivated to Improve, a teacup for Ardent and Dutiful, an ink ball for Ambitious and Rebellious, and a chess rook for Strategic and Persuasive. (Skuggs also appeared from time to time—sort of like Clippy, the Microsoft Office Assistant of the late 1990s—but he seemed suppressed. The only Skuggs merchandise in the shop was an unaccessorized Conservation Creature for $8.95.)

Overall, I give it a “Huzzah!” The design team has created a family-friendly environment with well thought-out and creatively executed displays and activities rooted in scholarly research and authentic materials. You’d have to score on the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale to follow all those icons, but there is intelligence and wit—most appropriate for Franklin—and hardly any dumbing down, cutesypie-ism, or other wrong notes.

But was the children’s museum approach the way to go? My take is that the museum is too arcade-like for adults on their own and not edgy enough for older kids on their own. I felt kind of odd playing the games (not to mention losing) by myself. And if I were 15, I wouldn’t want to hang with this crowd. (You’re probably thinking there aren’t teenagers who would go to a museum by themselves anymore, but I wonder.)

Sidebar: One of the townhouse shells on Market Street was given a thorough archaeological autopsy. It’s just right for high school students, college students, and grown-ups who go for this kind of thing.

My other concern has to do with the mix of authentic artifacts, reproductions, and multimedia (we used to call them “interactives,” but this is perhaps no longer current). Below, Selden’s three-part Credo Of Display (or COD, as in the Sacred Cod hanging in the Massachusetts State House):

1. If it can exist independently on a computer or a mobile device, it doesn’t belong in an exhibition.
2. If it’s the real thing, give it top billing and provide context, including multimedia if appropriate.
3. If it’s a reproduction, don’t pretend it’s the real thing and if possible do something with it.

Re No. 1: I would migrate the touch-screen Franklin games onto the web and into mobile apps. That doesn’t mean visitors can’t try them out when they’re at the museum. Give them instructions how to do so in non-exhibition spaces.

Re No. 2: Original objects are “the goods.” Like the Sacred Cod, they possess magical powers, physically embodying the spirits of their creators and of the times and places of their creation. By contextualizing them—before, during, and after the actual encounter of visitor with object—the experience is magnified. Tasteful multimedia is ideal for this, whether it’s footage of African masks being “danced” or of costumes on the silver screen (would you agree that the Ballets Russes show now at the National Gallery is a bit media-heavy?).

Re No. 3: Reproductions passing for originals get my dander up. Without mentioning any names, I went to an exhibition about Renaissance Ireland earlier this year full of actual-size reproductions of painted portraits, framed as originals. How are people supposed to learn to appreciate the difference? And how are museums supposed to make the case for preserving and displaying original artwork and artifacts?

A very mild example: Near the exhibition exit in the Benjamin Franklin Museum, there is a sedan chair and a 1785 portrait of Franklin by Charles Willson Peale. But the sedan chair, while of the period, has no connection to Franklin (he rode in ones like it toward the end of his life) and the portrait is a reproduction. Score: Designers 2, Visitors 0.

Out by the restrooms there is a reproduction sedan chair that visitors can get into for fun and photos (a great way to use reproductions). And upstairs, outside, a Franklin impersonator was demonstrating how to do the kinds of experiments that Ben did using replicas of his apparatus (again, great). In the exhibition, there were two of Ben’s ink balls in a case. Nearby were two reproduction ink balls on a forme (I had to look that word up) of metal type, just waiting to be picked up and tried out, but you couldn’t. They were attached. There was a long line at the Ranger-staffed Franklin Print Shop that is also part of the site, however, because kids (and adults) still like to try out mechanical things.

Now that we’ve returned to the surface, let’s break for Labor Day weekend. Those of you waiting for the Busted Bust on a Bus, you’ve been very patient. I won’t disappoint you next week…

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