Class of ’80 | It’s a rare pleasure in life to get a do-over.
That’s what Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Museum represents for Page Talbott G’76 Gr’80, who is co-curating its new exhibition about Franklin’s personal qualities. The remodeled museum in Old City, part of Independence National Historical Park, re-opened August 24 after being closed for two years, and will have new visitor amenities as well as improvements to its façade. A Grand Opening reception will be held September 19.
Talbott’s first stab at curating Franklin was the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary’s centerpiece show, “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World” [“Stuff of Legends,” Jan|Feb 2006], based on once-in-a-lifetime loans by Franklin descendants. The show debuted at the National Constitution Center in 2005 and drew more than 700,000 people to six venues, including Paris; spinoff versions traveled until 2011.
Not too shabby, especially considering that Talbott’s academic expertise was really in Colonial furniture, not Founding Fathers. (In addition to her master’s and PhD in American civilization from the University, she holds a master’s from the University of Delaware/Winterthur Program in Early American Culture and a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College.)
Yet Talbott wasn’t entirely satisfied: “While we offered many different entry points into Franklin’s life, nonetheless we often heard people say, ‘This man was incredible, how I can I possibly compare to him?’”
After the tercentenary, Talbott, its deputy director, “hung out a shingle” with her former boss, executive director Rosalind Remer, and began consulting on museum shows and other projects. Remer & Talbott’s first big commission, in 2008: rehabilitating the aging Franklin museum in conjunction with Quinn Evans Architects, British exhibit designers Casson Mann, and the National Park Service.
The underground museum formed part of the award-winning Franklin Court complex, designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (as the firm was then called). It includes “ghost structures” representing Franklin’s Philadelphia home and print shop in steel outline, along with vitrines showcasing archaeological remains.
The museum, built in the mid-1970s for the nation’s Bicentennial, was “cutting edge” in its day, Talbott says. But (nearly) 40 years is an eternity in museum time, she notes, and the tercentenary drew the attention of potential funders—notably the Pew Charitable Trusts—to its outmoded exhibits.
“We were presented with an opportunity that few curators ever have,” says Talbott, interviewed in May at her office at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where she has been interim president since April. “If you could do it over again, what might you do?”
Franklin is known for his dizzying array of careers and public personae: printer, aphorist, scientist, inventor, politician, diplomat, and founder of great institutions (including a certain university). But Talbott says she and Remer wanted “to encourage people to look at history in a different way—with the idea that Franklin is first and foremost a man … whom we remember through the distillation of time and the words that have been written about him.”
So they essentially deconstructed Franklin, focusing on his character traits. “Using his own words as the impetus,” Talbott says, “we describe his sociability, his ambition, his desire to improve the community, his curiosity, his engagement with the world. These are all attributes to which any of us can aspire.”
The design is also a deconstruction of sorts. Casson Mann “exploded” the famous “ghost house,” using the dimensions of individual rooms to construct exhibition spaces. Talbot and Remer have filled those rooms with eclectic storytelling devices: texts, artifacts, documents, animations, computer interactives and games, and hands-on exhibits designed to appeal both to children and the visually impaired.
“This is not intended to be a book on a wall,” says Talbott. “This is not the place to learn everything about every aspect of his life—it’s to bring you in and convince you that you want to learn more.”
In the show, specific traits are linked to particular aspects of Franklin’s life. For instance, the “sociability” aspects focus on Franklin’s family and the surrogate families he formed when he lived abroad. Talbott suggests that Franklin’s relationship with his common-law wife, Deborah, is sometimes misunderstood.
“The nature of their relationship is a very interesting one,” the curator says. “She was not a dowdy, retiring lady whom he abandoned—she was his partner in business, she maintained the printing shop, she was a very colorful, expansive writer, even though she was unschooled and consequently her spelling is phonetic. And she kept the household going during his absence.”
Franklin was in Europe for years at a time, returning only briefly to Philadelphia in between diplomatic assignments to Britain and France. Yet while Franklin “adored the company of women” and loved mentoring them, Talbott says, “there is absolutely nothing in the historical record—and the record is exhaustive—that would indicate that he had any romantic relationships while he was married to Deborah.”
More debate attaches to his relationship with slavery—an issue whose representation has dogged Independence National Historical Park over the years. Franklin, during his lifetime, owned eight or nine slaves, Talbott says, but later became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The exhibition uses an interactive that invites visitors to weigh the evidence and assess Franklin’s overall stance on slavery.
The $23 million renovation of the museum involved a public-private partnership, with about half the money coming from the federal government, and the rest from the state, the city, the Pew Charitable Trusts (which gave $6 million), and other foundations. And it has occasioned some controversy, most prominently over the architectural design. (The design was eventually tweaked in consultation with the architect Denise Scott Brown GCP’60 GAr’65 Hon’94, Talbott says.)
As of May, the museum was still a construction site, strewn with wheelbarrows, wooden crates marked “Fragile,” and piles of steel rods. The exhibition space was taking shape, however.
Later, Talbott shrugs when asked about the complexities of dealing with a public-private arrangement in which every decision has to be approved by the Park Service, and even the museum’s opening date was a matter of endless debate.
She and Remer have developed a short-hand to designate matters beyond their control, she says: “NMP,” or “Not my problem.” Benjamin Franklin might have filed that away under stoicism—or resilience.
—Julia M. Klein