Fondly, Pennsylvania

The saga of the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House continues…

Monday, 9/21/09

First I should start by correcting myself a bit. In my last blog I said that the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.S. objected to the idea put forth by the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.K. to use theatrical presentations to tell the story and have a science lab on the upper floors of the house. To finance the U.K. groups plan would require that entrance fees be steep. The U.S. group thought that the cost would deter visitors. Well this seemed to be precisely the U.K. group’s intention. Knowing that the upper floors of the house were fragile they thought that pricey admissions would make it so that large numbers of people were never traipsing through the house, potentially damaging it. Since the U.K. group did not want to restore the house to as it looked when Franklin lived there citing that it would not be interesting enough to attract visitors, I have to wonder if both group’s reasoning was flawed. When the choice is to limit attendance by either price or ‘interesting-ness,’ would either one actually be viable in the long-term? This seems to be a recurring problem for house museums today. Do we simply create a snapshot in time and hope for the best, or do we forsake some of the history in order to infuse it with some 21st Century thinking (and still hope for the best)?

One of the largest files I’ve come across was one simply labeled ‘Hallam.’ Apparently in 2005 Margaret and Martin Hallam, Franklin historians living in England, were hired by the Friends U.S. to create a guidebook to 36 Craven St. As the book neared completion, the Hallams expressed interest in also printing to book in the U.K., and selling it at Craven St. when it opened. The reaction of the U.S. group was severe to say the least. Their response was that they did not want something they funded to be used in the U.K. They could not understand why the Hallam’s were even asking. Ultimately, no solution was ever found and the book went unfinished. The last documents in this particular file were of Mrs. Hallam requesting payment for the work that they did complete.

I also uncovered a document that further explains Lady Bessborough’s refusal to give back some Franklin memorabilia that was given to her for safekeeping during renovations. Bessborough apparently kept the artifacts because she felt that their “security would be compromised by theatrical presentations.” How the presentations and the security of the artifacts were related she did not elaborate on. Possibly this was just another way to stall the U.K. group, which by this time was rapidly moving towards achieving their goal for the house.

Still many files to look at…

Comments

Hi Timothy, Your recent

Hi Timothy,

Your recent posts have been brought to our attention at Benjamin Franklin House. I would welcome giving you a bit more information on the background of how Benjamin Franklin House came to be what it is today: an open and dynamic museum and educational facility!

Rescued from dereliction, Benjamin Franklin House opened to the public for the first time on Franklin's 300th birthday in 2006. In the last 12 months through October 2009 compared with the year earlier, there has been an over 50% increase in the number of visitors to the Historical Experience. And since opening, we have reached the 31,000 visitor mark - including some 5000 children, more than ever visited the House in it's nearly 300 years of exisitence.

Benjamin Franklin House is today a place for history, science and the arts:

• The Historical Experience uses the House’s historic rooms as a stage for a drama, integrating live performance, sound, and visual projection, to bring Franklin’s London story to life in his own words. It is unique ‘museum as theatre,’ allowing visitors to experience a sense of the complexity of the man and the times in which he lived. Visitor comments are posted weekly on the House’s website at www.BenjaminFranklinHouse.org; these are indicative: “Novel and poignant...bring[ing] a fascinating man to life;” "Wonderful mixture of film, sound and live performance;” One of the best museum presentations I have ever seen!”

• The award-winning Student Science Centre focuses on Franklin’s London science – from electricity and lightning rods to the invention of his armonica – gives young people, primarily from inner city schools, hands-on opportunities to enhance their historical knowledge and satisfy their scientific curiosity, free of charge

• The Scholarship Centre, the focal point in Europe for Franklin research for visiting scholars, and students, includes research facilities and access to Yale University’s Franklin Papers. It is also home to the House’s internship programme for young people from universities across Britain, the US, and farther afield, which promotes cross-cultural exchange in keeping with Franklin’s own experience at Craven Street; in addition, nearly 40 events per year explore myriad subjects associated with Franklin, encompassing art exhibitions, lectures, an annual symposium and Literary Prize for young and professional writers

The Historical Experience is one of the most unexpected and appealing aspects of a visit to the House. Guests begin their adventure in the basement where an historical music video sets the stage with an overview of Franklin’s life. Unexpectedly, at its conclusion, dimly framed in the doorway, is Franklin friend, and confidante, Polly Hewson, daughter of his landlady Margaret Stevenson, portrayed by a professional actress. Believing they are Dr. Franklin’s guests, Polly beckons them to follow. Throughout their journey, Polly provides observations, laughter, confidential asides, and tearful revelations, but there are moments when she grows quiet and other voices can be heard: Franklin’s, Margaret’s, those of his family members, trusted friends, and foes, combined in each space with relevant imagery – portraits, maps, documents, and scenes – projected directly onto the 18th century walls.

Emmy Award winning actor Peter Coyote provides the voice of Franklin, while Academy Award nominee, Imelda Staunton, provides the voice of Margaret Stevenson.

The Historical Experience was developed following extensive consultation with over 70 individuals and organisations. Primary funder to opening the House to the public, the Heritage Lottery Fund, felt the House would play an important role as a “living history museum.”

The Historical Experience aims to tell the story of an important period in Anglo-American relations, world history and the Age of Enlightenment. It is the story of a man and his times, his changing convictions, his strengths and his flaws. It strives to inspire a thirst for finding out more.

We seek to involve as many citizens in the rich heritage encapsulated at 36 Craven Street as possible. We provide tailored outreach to young people, older citizens, local residents and groups, and underserved potential visitors including those from disadvantaged communities.

In formulating our plans, we were motivated by Franklin who dedicated his life to breaking new ground. The Historical Experience takes visitors on a journey through spaces where so much took place, blending performance and heritage. At Benjamin Franklin House, visitors are on stage in the 18th-century spaces.

As visitors climb the staircase like Franklin before them, they are afforded a rare opportunity to experience the compact reality of Georgian city life. They both see and hear the House’s history – the patina of the paneling, the worn wooden floorboards, the simplicity of marble fireplace surrounds, doors that creak when opened. It is the perfect backdrop for the Historical Experience’s compelling drama.

The Historical Experience has been highlighted in the New York Times, USA Today, CNN, and the Smithsonian Magazine, among others, receiving a four star rating from Britain’s Times Out and cited in Britain’s Sunday Times as something “Franklin, ever the innovator, would have approved.” Perhaps our visitors, though, say it best (from recent comments posted on our website): Extremely well thought out and unique approach to teaching history;” “Excellent - wide ranging and well informed;” “One of the best museum presentations I have ever seen!”

Finally, Lady Bessborough this past June gave the artefacts she had been holding to Benjamin Franklin House and they are on display for all visitors, including a letter Franklin wrote from the House and his Craven Street wallet.

Do be in touch and we can give you any further information you might require. Benjamin Franklin House is an exciting success story that enlightens and delights visitors, bringing history to life in groundbreaking ways.

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