The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary
Rosalind Remer and Allison McBride, November 2005
From the Annual Meeting 2006 column of the November 2005 Perspectives
Philadelphia takes pride in its status as Benjamin Franklin's adopted hometown. In January 2006, the city will have all the more reason to boast, as it kicks off the national celebration of Franklin's 300th birthday. The American Historical Association's 120th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia is perfectly timed to make the most of the occasion and everyone traveling to Philadelphia is invited to take part. The high point of the party is the groundbreaking exhibition, Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, which makes its international debut at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall.
The exhibition was developed by the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, a private, nonprofit alliance established in 2000. The Tercentenary consists of five Philadelphia institutions with ties to Franklin—the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, the Franklin Institute, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—and acts in conjunction with a federal advisory body to ensure that Franklin's birthday is appropriately marked nationwide.
After its Philadelphia premiere, the exhibition will travel to St. Louis, Houston, Denver, and Atlanta before its finale in Paris. The exhibition relies on top-notch scholarship in history and material culture and features the largest collection of Franklin-related artifacts ever assembled—many of which never have been displayed in public—to show visitors the domestic, work, social, and political spheres of Franklin's life. Its close attention to less familiar matters ensures that even Franklin aficionados will discover new perspectives on him, while an array of interactive, multimedia activities promises to immerse curious minds of all ages in his world.
The Local Arrangements Committee has organized a private tour of the exhibit with chief curator Page Talbot from 9 to 11 a.m. on Friday, January 6.
In conjunction with staging Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, the Tercentenary has undertaken the task of collecting and cataloging hundreds of objects for the web-based Frankliniana Database. The database grew out of the Tercentenary's need to compile and store information on Franklin-related artifacts held in private and public collections in a single, accessible site. Provenance, historical, genealogical, and antiquarian research is used to identify and link objects that Franklin owned, used, was given, or gave away.
The online debut of the Frankliniana Database coincides with the opening of the exhibit on December 15, 2005. Afterward it will be broadened and updated, as more Frankliniana objects and new information come to light. A virtual exhibit and the electronic database will exist into the future on the Internet—a modest testament to Franklin's enduring influence.
A further display of the Tercentenary's aim to encourage renewed appreciation of Franklin's legacy comes in the form of the Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World exhibition companion book. The first fully illustrated book on his life and exploits, it combines original essays by prominent scholars with images of never-before-seen works of art, archival documents, and personal possessions to cover the range of Franklin's interests and achievements. The book is being published by Yale University Press and will be available for purchase in November.
The program of the AHA annual meeting will feature two sessions on Franklin, with a special off-site session hosted at the National Constitution Center on Saturday afternoon. This session, "Benjamin Franklin at 300: Three New Works" (Session 140) will feature Walter Isaacson (Aspen Institute), Gordon Wood (Brown Univ.), Stacy Schiff (New York City), and Richard Beeman (Univ. of Pennsylvania). On Sunday, January 8, J. A. Leo Lemay (Univ. of Delaware), James Green (Library Company of Philadelphia), E. Philip Krider (Univ. of Arizona), and Ellen R. Cohn (Yale Univ.) will present a roundtable on "Benjamin Franklin at 300: Printer, Scientist, and Promoter of American Liberties" (Session 167).
Along with the special exhibition on the tercentenary, Philadelphia offers visitors plenty of Franklin-related events this coming January. At the Rosenbach Museum and Library, a rare collection of Poor Richard's Almanac first editions offers an intimate look at Franklin's most famous work. The Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia presents Franklin's Legacy of Public Service: Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, an exhibit on the great-granddaughter of Franklin who advanced the role of women in late-19th-century Philadelphia. The National Museum of American Jewish History presents Benjamin Franklin and Religious Liberty, an exhibit stressing Franklin's desire to help forge a tolerant, pluralistic society.
Those bringing children along will find family-friendly ways to experience Franklin. At the Franklin Institute, home of the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, families can learn about Franklin's science in fun and interactive ways. Whether alone or in a group, visitors wanting fresh air can stroll through Philadelphia's Historic District on the self-guided Franklin Footsteps Walking Tour. Highlights include his home at Franklin Court, his grandson's printing shop, his gravesite at Christ Church Burial Ground, the B. Free Franklin Post Office, the Second Bank of the United States, and Independence Hall. Afterward, head over to the City Tavern, a gathering place built in 1773 and favored by the founding fathers, for a real taste of colonial life.
With each day bringing Franklin's 300th birthday closer, the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary is building momentum. Readers eager to take part in the celebration should visit www.benfranklin300.org to find information on all of the above-mentioned events, along with educational resources and information about what's happening nationwide as we honor one of the most remarkable and influential Americans of any generation.
—Rosalind Remer is executive director of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary and a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.
—Allison McBride is program assistant at the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary.