Many museums are dependent on the aura of their collections: the British Museum has the Elgin Marbles (we’ll have to deal with the ethics and politics of that another time) and the Soane Museum has the Hogarth series The Rake’s Progress; the Pitt Rivers in Oxford is a cabinet of anthropological curiosities, and the Cumberland Pencil Museum has the most comprehensive collection of graphite-related products in the WORLD!
But what happens when you don’t have any stuff at all? Can you have a museum without objects and, if so, what might that look like?I got a glimpse of the answer at the Benjamin Franklin House, a Georgian terrace house at 36 Craven Street, just off Trafalgar Square. A well-known American statesman and founding father (with his signature on both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), not to mention philosopher, publisher, scientist, inventor (think lightning conductors, bifocals and more) AND founder of the first public lending library, what is less well-known is that Franklin spent sixteen years as a diplomat in London. After my recent trip to the east coast of the U.S., where I found myself smitten with Boston (where Franklin was born) and fascinated by revolutionary history, I decided to trundle down the Strand to his only surviving house (those in Boston, Philadelphia and Paris are, alas, no more). During his time in London, Franklin took up lodgings in the heart of the city – close to Parliament at Westminster, the printing houses of Fleet Street, and the coffeehouses of Covent Garden – in a building presided over by a widow, Margaret Stevenson, and her daughter Polly. Over time he became very much part of the family, as well as community life, even printing a mock local newspaper he called The Craven Street Gazette.
|Signing of the Declaration of Independence|
Fast forward two and a half centuries and the house at Craven Street now contains only echoes of its most famous resident: almost every single artifact and piece of furniture associated with Franklin now resides in private collections or museums in the U.S. So, after an eight year, £3 million conservation project (the house had fallen into a pretty bad state of disrepair), the house was reopened as a museum on 17 January 2006, fittingly the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth. It had just about nothing inside it save for the evening’s wine and canapés, and a collection of old bones they unearthed from the anatomy school Polly’s husband ran in the basement. Instead, they decided to try to capture the sights, sounds and moods of the house during Franklin’s years there, with the museum as a stage across which the experience plays out…
|An immersive experience of Franklin's life|
I was surprised to find myself a little emotional by the end as Franklin rushes off back to Philadelphia, and you learn that Polly travelled all the way to America to be with Franklin’s daughter at his deathbed years later. A wholly immersive experience, the result is a strong sense of a lived presence, a series of echoes that continues to reverberate at 36 Craven Street today. It’s a scintillating sidestepping of the need for stuff, and one I highly recommend.