When Benjamin Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1785 after an extended diplomatic stay in France, he didn’t exactly travel light. “He sent home over 100 crates of household furnishings,” reports Page Talbott Gr’80, chief curator of a major traveling exhibition that will mark Franklin’s 300th birthday. “He sent home so much stuff, he had to build an addition to his Market Street house.”

The 55-year-old Talbott, a longtime independent curator, is not a Franklin scholar, but an expert on colonial furniture. So it may be no accident that the greatest revelation of the show, “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” is likely to be the insight it affords into his material possessions: a set of mahogany English Rococo chairs made by French craftsmen, a delicate French porcelain tea service with a Chantilly Sprig pattern, a silver marrow spoon with a family crest, a music stand that may have been designed by Franklin himself.

The exhibition as a whole stresses Franklin’s idealism, including his fervor for scientific experimentation and civic improvement. But Talbott sees no real contradiction between Franklin the idealist and Franklin the committed materialist. “He doesn’t say it’s bad to spend money,” she says, alluding to his famous essay, “The Way to Wealth.” “He says it’s bad to spend money foolishly.”

The timed-ticketed exhibition at the National Constitution Center, which opened December 13 and runs through April 30, is the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s ambitious year-long Ben Franklin 300 celebration. The celebration will include live performances, museum shows, symposia, tours—and 300 parties slated for January 13 through January 17 (Franklin’s actual birthday).

“Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World” is a project of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, a nonprofit consortium composed of the University and two other organizations that trace their founding to Franklin—the Library Company of Philadelphia and the American Philosophical Society—along with the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The lead funder, to the tune of $4 million, is the Pew Charitable Trusts. After Philadelphia, the exhibition will travel to St. Louis, Houston, Denver, and Atlanta, before ending its run (in revised form) in 2008 at two Paris museums.

“In our genre—the history museum—there aren’t many blockbusters,” says Richard Stengel, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center. “This is really one of them. Benjamin Franklin is a great brand, one of the greatest brands in American history. And it’s perfectly and wonderfully mission-related for us. The show is really about his civic engagement—and that’s one of the things that we preach.”

The 8,000-square-foot show has more than 250 objects from 76 lenders, including about 30 from Penn. But it also includes evocations of Franklin’s home and work environments, computer interactives and other hands-on activities for children, video animations that relate anecdotes about his life, and images of Franklin in popular culture.

In November, about a month before the show is set to open, Talbott walks a visitor through galleries still under construction, explaining a layout that she promises will be dense with activities. The exhibition, translated into both French and Spanish, focuses on the dazzling multiplicity of Franklin’s personae. It is both chronological and thematic—with sections highlighting Franklin’s overlapping careers as a printer, civic leader, scientist, and diplomat. Visitors will likely emerge awed at his versatility—and, Talbott says, at his sense of humor. “They will see that he was a person capable of laughing at himself.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/06

COVER STORY :
Stuff of Legend
By Julia M. Klein

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Jan|Feb 06 Contents
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(1) 1876 engraving by Currier & Ives, from the American Philosophical Society. (2) Mother of pearl and silver cufflinks owned by Franklin (probably French, ca. 1780), from the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. (3, 4, 5) Glass armonica designed by Franklin (1761-62); paper currency with leaf printing, for Pennsylvania and Delaware (1757-59), printed by Franklin and Hall; odometer, possibly designed by Franklin (ca. 1763), from The Frankliniana Collection, The Franklin Institute, Inc., Philadelphia. (6) “Lion’s Mouth” box (ca. 1750) where readers would suggest new books for the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia, from the Library Company. Photos (2, 3, 4, 5) by Peter Harholdt.

Benjamin Franklin turns 300 on January 17, 2006, but events in honor of his tercentenary are happening year-long. The celebrations were kicked off in October with a reenactment on a Market Street returned to its colonial days of 17-year old Franklin’s arrival in Philadelphia—an event memorialized on Penn’s campus in the 1914 sculpturre of the young Franklin by R. Tait McKenzie that stands outside Weightman Hall. Some events appear below, with Penn events highlighted. A full listing can be found at www.benfranklin300.org.

Ongoing

Ben Franklin: In Search of a Better World. The largest collection of Franklin materials ever assembled, this centerpiece exhibit of the tercentenary celebration “will immerse visitors in Franklin’s world and leave them inspired by his example.” The National Constitution Center, through April 30. $9 adults, $7 seniors, children, students, and active military [see main story for more information].

Franklin…He’s Electric! Visitors to this exhibit can explore the scientific contributions of the man who invented bifocals, swim fins, and musical instruments. The Franklin Institute, permanent exhibit. $13.75 adults, $11 seniors and children.

For the Education of Youth. Maps, drawings, and documents reveal how Franklin’s proposal for higher education turned into the reality that is the University of Pennsylvania. College Hall, through June. Free.

Franklin Footsteps Walking Tour. Explore Franklin’s neighborhood, and learn about his civic involvement, his roles in government, and how he came to invent the four-sided street light. Leaves from Franklin Court, April 1–June 30 and September 3–October 31 Saturday and Sunday at 2pm, July 1–September 2 daily at 2pm. Free.

Franklin Lunch. Enjoy a three-course lunch priced at $17.06 in honor of Franklin’s birth year. Le Castagne, $17.06.

January

Franklin Biographers: A Reunion. Jim Lehrer of PBS’s Newshour joins three prominent Franklin biographers in conversation. The National Constitution Center, January 8. Free, reservations required.

7-up on Ben. Seven members of the Penn community will talk for seven minutes each on what Benjamin Franklin means to them. Kelly Writer’s House, January 17. Free.

Institute of Contemporary Art Project Space: Brian Tolle. A special installation commemorating Franklin draws on artist Brian Tolle’s collaboration with local historical archivists and fabricators. Institute of Contemporary Art, January 17 – March 26. $6 adults, $3 seniors, students, artists, free to children and Penncard holders.

Ben Franklin: Unplugged. In an energetic and funny theater performance, monologist Josh Kornbluth sets off on a journey to uncover the mysterious relationship between Franklin and his son. Plays & Players Theater, January 10–22.
$15–$45.

February

Birthday Party for Benjamin Franklin. A Philadelphia Orchestra concert explores Franklin’s passion for music. The Kimmel Center, February 4. $7-$44.

March

Franklin Court. The Pennsylvania Ballet brings Franklin’s inventions to life with dancers personifying swim fins, bifocals, and electricity. The Academy of Music, March 3 – 11. $10 - $105.

April

Franklin Symposium. A panel will discuss Franklin’s ideas on education, followed by a performance of music from his time by Tempesta di Mare, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s annual dinner and speaker award ceremony. Panel at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library (free), performance at the Penn Museum, April 4. Panel free.

The Medical World of Benjamin Franklin. This exhibition examines Franklin’s contributions to medicine as well as his own challenges as a medical patient. College of Physicians of Philadelphia, April 8–June 30. $10 adults, $7 seniors and students.