PHILADELPHIA — Can an underground museum devoted to a Founding Father compete with the charms of national icons — or a foodie paradise that takes up an entire block?
Can it appeal to visitors who carefully pose themselves in front of this city’s famous (or is that infamous?) “Rocky” statue?
Spend a couple of hours in the Benjamin Franklin Museum, which opened in 1976 and has undergone a major re-imagining, and you may very well add it to your “best of” list.
I first visited the museum in 2014, about a year after it had been relaunched, and I returned in April, eager for another look. The facility, most of which is underground, is part of the city’s Independence National Historical Park in the Center City area, where top attractions include Reading Terminal Market (home to dozens of food stalls), Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, where the lines frequently snake around the block.
Lines at the Franklin museum are rare. But after you buy a ticket at the above-ground entrance, walk down the stairs and step into the interactive, hands-on space, you probably won’t be thinking about that iconic symbol of American independence.
You’ll be focused on Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) and his many personas: diplomat, scientist, printer, writer, statesman, intellectual and politician, among others.
At the foot of the stairs, you’ll encounter a quote from Franklin (“You know my house… you will be most heartily welcome”) and a small display that introduces visitors to Skuggs the Squirrel, a cartoonish creature that pops up throughout the museum, created presumably to appeal to younger children.
But it’s the nearby wall-size animation display that sets the tone — this place may be devoted to history, but it’s playful history — of what is to come.
The museum is organized by themes: “Ardent & Dutiful,” “Ambitious & Rebellious,” “Motivated to Improve,” “Curious & Full of Wonder,” “Strategic & Persuasive.”
During my visit, dozens of families, couples and singles lingered at various displays. They were drawn to several artifacts, including a sedan chair that carried Franklin to the Constitutional Convention (he suffered from gout) and a glass armonica, a Franklin creation that is played by running your fingers over the rims of glass bowls. (Bluefin, a company that created several of the museum’s animated displays, designed a digital version of the armonica, which lets visitors “play” the instrument by touching a screen.)
Some of the museum-goers inspected a chart of daily wine consumption from September 1782 (more evidence of Franklin’s big appetites) or listened to recordings of people reading his letters and papers.
They touched screens, learned about 18th century printing and watched a short piece of animation that was devoted to a moment in history that probably was unfamiliar to most of them: a time Franklin and John Adams shared a bed at a crowded inn and argued about opening a window.
And they were reminded about some of the Franklin mythology that continues to this day. (He did not “discover” electricity, but was the first person to detail how a lightning rod works.)
Visitors might leave the museum with all of their memories and expectations intact. But if they linger at one of the final touch-screen displays, some of those happy thoughts might dissipate.
The display wants visitors to decide whether Franklin, a slave owner, ultimately opposed slavery. They can touch panels and read facts and quotes that are associated with different times in Franklin’s life (young entrepreneur, aspiring politician, elder statesman), then weigh the evidence.
The process may leave you with a slightly different view of one of America’s most celebrated figures.
Info: Benjamin Franklin Museum, 317 Chestnut St.; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission $5 for adults, $2 for children ages 4-16; children younger than 4 are admitted free.
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