PHILADELPHIA — Setting Ben Franklin loose in the new Philadelphia museum dedicated to his accomplishments would be as electric as giving him another kite to fly during a lightning storm. He would get a charge out of it.
The Benjamin Franklin Museum’s techno gadgets and virtual presentations bring visitors up to speed on one of Philadelphia’s most famous residents in a style that would wow Franklin himself.
Strolling from room to room of the underground museum in Franklin Court, he could tap plenty of touch screens, chuckle along with the animated and amusing film segments told in his own voice and play matching games about his life.
But the museum is much more than techno-thrills of playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on a virtual armonica (a musical instrument Franklin invented) or seeing your name appear on a computer screen, upside-down and backward in an old-style type, as if Franklin hand-set it for you during his days at a printer.
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The new museum is a total “re-imagining” of the former Underground Museum built in 1976. It was two years in the making, with funding from the National Park Service, charitable organizations, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.
It visits all aspects of Franklin’s life (citizen, printer, inventor, author, statesman and philosopher), surveys his accomplishments and sums them up in a style that’s engaging and easy to understand.
Not far from Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the President’s House and other Independence National Historic Park sites, the new highlight of Franklin Court is well worth a visit.
The museum, which opened Aug. 24, corrects common misconceptions. Franklin did not discover electricity, as many people think. However, he invented the lightning rod and discovered the importance of grounding it. Internationally known for additional work with electricity, he also invented the way to store electricity and called it a “battery.”
Although he never was president of the United States, he served as “president” of Pennsylvania in the days before governors took charge.
You’ll find fascinating stories about Franklin’s always-on brain that was churning with ideas and inventions to improve daily life. When he identified a problem, he found a solution. He was having difficulty with his vision. Eureka! He created bifocals. Houses in the 1700s were smoky and cold. Eureka again! He created the Franklin stove. He couldn’t reach books on the top shelves in his library. He created a long-handled reacher. You get the idea.
Animated, cartoon-like clips offer humorous and interesting anecdotes drawn from Franklin’s letters and are told in his “voice.”
Did you know Franklin flew a kite for a totally different experiment? While swimming, he used one to harness the wind and effortlessly cross a mile-wide pond. He also created the first swim fins and hand-paddles, which he noted were awkward but did help him swim faster.
Fascinated by whirlwinds (mini tornadoes), Franklin rode his horse in pursuit of one for nearly three-quarters of a mile. He stopped only because he feared he or his horse would be hurt by the branches and debris spewing from it.
The museum even incorporates Franklin’s love of gray squirrels, which were called “skuggs” in colonial times. Visitors will meet Skuggs, a “tour guide” whose image is used to direct parents and children along “paths” to family activities throughout the museum.
“The museum is for visitors from 3 to 103,” says curator Page Talbott. “We want them to come away, not feeling as if they have been taught, but as if they’ve just had an engaging encounter with Franklin and have come to know him better.”
Some highlights of the museum’s 45-item artifact collection: A family Bible that Franklin bought for his daughter; a mastodon tooth fossil from Franklin’s collection; a sedan chair used to transport him to the Constitutional Convention (the convention’s oldest member, Franklin suffered terrible pain from gout) and a glass generator Franklin designed and used for his electrical experiments.
Although the pieces are small, Franklin’s chess set is one of the artifacts that looms large in his life. He observed, “Life is a kind of chess,” and claimed playing the game made him a better representative for the colonists and diplomat for the United States. Why? He said it honed his skills to think strategically, anticipate moves during negotiations and check himself from making rash decisions. An observer wrote: “His passion for late-night chess games was checked only by his supplies of candles.”
The museum steers away from a heavy time-lined approach to telling Franklin’s story. Instead, you’ll learn of his times and accomplishments as they exemplify his most outstanding character traits including “ardent and dutiful,” “ambitious and rebellious,” “motivated to improve,” “curious and full of wonder” and “strategic and persuasive.”
The one-story museum’s main entrance and gift shop are on the west side of Franklin Court and next to the “ghost house” structures representing Franklin’s home and print shop. (His Philadelphia home was demolished in 1812.) But the heart of the museum is underground and arranged to suggest different rooms of Franklin’s house.
Deciding how to tell Franklin’s story was difficult, according to Cynthia McLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park. Trying to quantify Franklin’s greatness, McLeod struggled to find one modern figure whose qualities could match Franklin’s. “The best I could do was create a composite from the best of Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Ted Turner, Katherine Graham, Jon Stewart …” Her voice trails off.
Museum displays show Franklin lived the advice he gave, including, “Be frugal and industrious and you will be free.” He mastered the printing trade, lived on a tight budget in his early days and chose a healthier, less-expensive diet to become a stronger, more productive worker. It all paid off. He retired at 42. Although he told his mother, “I’d rather be useful than rich,” he was both.
Taking in the rest of the rooms and their contents exemplifies another of his sage sayings: “If you don’t want to be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing.”
Notes McLeod, “It’s amazing to realize a man born 307 years ago could be so recognized and relevant today.”
However, there’s one place in the museum that could leave his admirers in a quandary about following his advice. Would it be smarter to save the money, or spend the money for one of the gift shop’s piggy banks, emblazoned with: “A penny saved is a penny earned”?