Friday, 27 January 2012

A Museum without Objects: The Benjamin Franklin House

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
Franklin developed a rich London life full of eager scholarship, assorted friends and dignitaries, and dangerous dinner party science demonstrations (many of them resuscitated in the museum’s adjacent Student Science Centre for visiting school groups). Despite working tirelessly to maintain fair and unified relations between Britain and the Colonies – including testifying against the infamous Stamp Act in the House of Commons, leading to its repeal – by early 1775 the British had concluded that Franklin was a fomenter of Trouble and very likely an inciter of Rebellion (both Trouble and Rebellion being largely unfavourable nouns for a diplomat to find affixed to his reputation), and was sent packing. So off he went back to Philadelphia (by which time the American Revolution had already broken out) to join the Continental Congress, where, between bouts of crippling gout, he offered amendments to Jefferson’s various drafts 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
Using a combination of sound, lighting, visual projection and a live actor playing the role of Polly – who leads visitors around the house and interacts with the scenes evoked – a narrative is woven from room to room. Significantly, it tells Franklin’s London story in his own words (assisted, of course, by him having been such a prodigious letter writer and autobiographer), and through images of primary documents and portraits rather than filmed reenactment sequences. As a result, the narrative avoids the excesses of speculation that often beset historical houses, or the ‘gimmickyness’ that can attend digital presentations, while adding an unusually sensory, affective encounter with the past. After forty-five minutes, you’ve learnt about eighteenth century food, health, botany and domestic life in the basement kitchen; peeked in on Franklin’s public and personal relationships (and heard a demonstration of his musical invention, the glass armonica) on the ground floor; and witnessed the triumphs and trials of both his scientific experiments and political career on the first floor. All the dimly-lit floors are connected by a narrow, original staircase with turned balustrades, complete with a satisfying creak, but, if you have a large group (mine was just me and an elderly Franklin enthusiast from the US who kept dropping his camera lens cap down the stairwell), I imagine the transit time means some people get out of sync with the presentation.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Amy - what a wonderful write-up on such a well-known historical figure. I would love nothing more than to sit there and hear about Georgian life. I look forward to reading the next post.