Philadelphia has a fair number of museums. Not surprisingly, many Philadelphia museums are devoted to our nation’s history. Others focus on art. In 2022, we visited several of them.
Philadelphia’s Historical Museums
The museum experience begins with a short (17 minute), very high-level, live human-narrated, multimedia overview of the country’s founding, history, and role of the constitution. After leaving the presentation, you move on to more detailed displays that lay out the evolution and role of the Constitution within the context of the history of the country.
The exhibits begin with the colonies’ grievances with the British government and the declaration and seven-year-long war for independence. It examines the lack of national powers (including taxing powers) and other limitations of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitutional Convention’s unexpected agreement to replace the loose agreement with a Constitution that gave more powers to (before the passage of the Bill of Rights that limited the powers of) the Federal government. It identified the multiple compromises that had to be reached, including splitting Congress into two branches in an attempt to provide each state with adequate representation.
We learned of the many precedents that Washington established for the presidency. For example, he formed a cabinet and delegated work to them. He also limited himself to two terms in office.
Exhibits focused on the endless questions that surround the delineation of power among the three branches; between the Federal government and the states; and the rights of individuals vis-a-vis different levels of government. Exhibits walked us through these challenges including:
- The landmark case of Marbury v Madison established the right of the Supreme Court to determine these roles and of the Federal government to exercise certain controls over the states, through
- The implied powers granted by McCullough v Maryland and the factionalism that Washington so feared from the establishment of political parties.
And then there was the issue of slavery. The Declaration, the Constitution, and the first several administrations studiously avoided the issue. It drove a wedge between President Andrew Jackson and his VP John Calhoun. The wedge continued to widen with Supreme Court decisions that were papered over with compromises. These include the infamous Dred Scott and Plessy v Ferguson decisions. These compromises ended with the election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession of South Carolina and the other Southern States, and the Civil War.
Some hoped that the war, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments would end slavery and lead the way to peaceful integration. This hope was dashed by the assassination of Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s ascension to the presidency. Johnson barely survived the first presidential impeachment trial. He perpetuated Southern violence, discrimination, and voting restrictions against formerly enslaved people—much of which, unfortunately, continues to this day.
Wins and Loses
The displays took us through Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting activities, the imposition of the first income tax, and several of his pioneering workplace reforms through WWI and the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote. Then came FDR’s massive Depression-fighting efforts, and his failed effort to pack the Supreme Court (not to speak of WWII). and Truman’s assertion of civilian power over the military with his firing on General MacArthur and the McCarthy’s shameless Red Smear tactics.
Then came the Civil Rights battles of the 60s and the momentous changes brought about by the Warren Court. Lyndon Johnson made equally momentous efforts to enact Medicare, Medicaid, and numerous Civil Rights Laws which realigned political parties and reignited questions of states’ rights.
Exhibits talked about the impeachment trials of Nixon, Clinton, and Trump. They identified some of the momentous decisions already made by the current Roberts’ Supreme Court (as around campaign financing, the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, and voting rights). It did not, however, quite get to the fundamental changes in the Court’s composition since these issues have been decided and the growing question of whether courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular, have become another politicized branch of government.
Exiting the primary display room takes you to a fun and engaging room in which life-sized, bronzed figures of the Second Constitutional Convention delegates are casually milling around the room speaking with each other. Visitors interspersed among them taking selfies.
The solemnity of the museum resumes in two new additional exhibits, one of which examines the Civil War, the enactment of the 14th and 15th Amendments, and Reconstruction with a brief fast forward to the ongoing fight for civil rights (a hugely complex set of issues that is much more comprehensively addressed in Washington D.C.s incredible African-American History Museum.
The second additional exhibit examines women’s suffrage movements and the history of the fight for the 19th Amendment which did not pass until 1920— 70 years after which freed slaves were granted, albeit have still not fully achieved, this right. (A National Park Service museum dedicated to this issue is located in Seneca Falls New York, the de facto home of the women’s suffrage movement.
In spite of its attempt to appeal to children as well as adults, the museum is very interesting to visit. It delves into Benjamin Franklin’s virtues and to a lesser extent his vices.
Perhaps the greatest of each was his impatience and his rebelliousness. For example, he threatened to run away from home if his father insisted on apprenticing him at his candle shop. He temporarily relented to be apprenticed to his brother’s print shop. However, he did run away from home a couple of years later. As soon as Franklin learned about the printing business, he left his brother’s shop in Boston to open his own in Philadelphia. That’s where his other virtues kicked in—his personality, his wittiness, his ambition, industriousness, resourcefulness, and his reliability.
These traits won him friends as well as business and government printing contracts. These combined with his publishing of his popular Poor Richard Almanac and witty opinion pieces (not to speak of pseudonyms) in other publications further burnished his reputation. He burnished his wealth by financing and effectively franchising Franklin printing offices along the northeast coast, all of which allowed him to effectively retire in his late 30s.
His successes and contacts led to his appointment to public office as a deputy director. He became the director of the U.S. Post Office which he turn into a profit by offering home delivery and credit. His successes led to new opportunities. He became Pennsylvania’s, and later the Continental Congress’s commissioner to England. During this time he became convinced that England would never treat the colonies fairly and that independence was required.
Working for Independence
Franklin was nominated to work with Adams and Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was then assigned to France to help negotiate a relationship by which England’s sworn enemy would finance and provide military and naval assistance to the colonies in their war for independence. When the war was eventually won, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris with England. He became the spiritual leader (although his advanced age prevented him from becoming an actual leader) of the Constitutional Conventions which led to the ratification of the Constitution.
Franklin’s Scientific/Technical Accomplishments
Throughout this, Franklin became one of the most important and recognized scientists in the world. As an already wealthy man, he refused to take patents on any of his inventions. He believed that aiding his fellow citizens was a sufficient reward. He was also one of the most civic-minded of citizens.
To get an idea of the man’s accomplishments—in addition to those of his success as a printer and a leading diplomat—consider his many scientific/technical accomplishments and his civic contributions including:
- Confirmed that lighting generates electricity, and invented and demonstrated the use of lightning rods to protect buildings from lighting;
- Created the basis for the first multi-cell batteries using interconnected multiple leyden jars;
- Created a machine for generating static electricity;
- Designed safer vented tops for gas streetlamps;
- Created a safer fireplace design that became the basis for Franklin stoves;
- Created the first bifocals;
- Mapped the currents of the Gulf Stream to make international transport more efficient;
- Identified the linkage between Icelandic volcanic eruptions and the haze that blocked the sun and created abnormally cold weather in Europe; and
- Created the first rudimentary kiteboards (by using a kite to pull him across a lake) and scuba fins by attaching paddles to his feet.
Franklin’s Civic Contributions
But Franklin didn’t stop there. He also made many civic contributions:
- Created the nation’s first subscription lending library;
- Created the first volunteer fire company;
- Created the first fire insurance company;
- Created the American Philosophical Association which was instrumental is establishing the country’s international credentials in the sciences;
- Created clubs to encourage learning and learned discussion of issues;
- Cofounded the University of Pennsylvania;
- Cofounded America’s first public hospital;
- Created some of the first schools for enslaved children—while owning a few slaves of his own; and
- Cofounded Pennsylvania’s largest abolitionist society.
Franklin’s National Contributions
Franklin also made many contributions to the nation. He:
- Contributed to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence;
- Was instrumental in negotiating France’s financing and military support of the Colonies in the Revolution;
- Negotiated the post-war Treaty of Amnesty and the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War; and
- Contributed to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.
Museum of the American Revolution
We visited this museum on a previous trip. It examines the growing animosity and distrust between the colonies and Britain. Exhibits talk about the initial, pre-war provocations and battles; the creation of the Declaration of Independence; the alliance with France; the challenges of raising money to fund the war from the states. It also examines the hardships the troops endured, the battles and ebbs and flows of the war; the colonies’ ultimate victory; and terms of peace.
Freemasonry is certainly a historic fraternal order that supposedly dates from the 990 B.C. building of King Solomon’s Temple. Its earliest American members included George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the latter of whom was one of the first Grand Masters. While the Masonic Temple is not actually a museum, it does have its own museum. Artifacts include the Masonic apron that Washington is shown presenting to Franklin in the statue at the building’s entrance.
The tour takes one through all seven of the lodge halls. A guide explains the building of the structure and the room design. His narrative provides an overview of the Masonic mission “to make good men better”. You learn about their extensive charitable work. You also learn about what one needs to do to rise in the ranks.
The rooms are magnificent. They range from the Spartan Norman Lodge to the Moorish Oriental Hall (designed after Granada Spain’s Alahambra Palace) to the Gothic Hall and the huge, grandly decorated Renaissance and Corinthian Halls.
After an exploration of the Grand Staircase and its stained glass windows, we visited the Ballroom and its multi-life-size statue of Franklin and the museum, which includes Washington’s apron as well as other artifacts.
Philadelphia Art Museums
Philadephia museums are more than history.
The Barnes Foundation is one of the nation’s largest and finest repositories of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Dr. Albert Barnes was a highly accomplished man. He rose from a poor family in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania medical school at age 20. He made a fortune by inventing an important new drug to treat eye diseases and prevent infant blindness. He then formed and managed. He sold the highly profitable and progressive company to allow him to devote full time to collecting and curating a world-class art collection, educating his fellow citizens, and exposing them to all forms of culture.
The superb collection is now displayed salon-style in conjunction with furniture and decorative arts and pieces that the artists owned and inspired their work. All of this by using hinges, locks, and other metalwork to highlight and create an environment of lines, colors, forms, and spaces that create compelling displays.
The result is an aesthetically pleasing viewing experience with a nearly seamless use of technology. If you focus your app-enabled camera on a painting or item, your screen shows d information on the artist, year, media, and a brief explanation of the art.
Although it is impossible to describe the collection, this was the largest collection of Renoirs that we have seen in one place. Plus it had a superb collection of Matisse. It also has most other leading Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists (with notable exceptions of Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and a few others). Also present were lesser-known contributors such as DeMuth, Soutine, Pascin, Avery ad many others. Since pictures, of both the artworks and the ways they are displayed, convey the feeling of this exhibit much better than can word, the following are several of the many highlights.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Although the Philadelphia Museum of Art includes representations of all forms of art from the Dark Ages through the present and across all geographies, we focused primarily on European and American art from the mid-19th century to the present and on a large number of special exhibits.
We began our exploration of this ambitious museum in a section that focused on 1850-1900 European Art (primarily Impressionism and Post-Impressionism) with spillover into the early 20th century with samplings of Art Nouveau decorative arts, Cubism, Surrealism, and even a bit of Dada.
Our exploration of American Art included a literal skip through the generally triumphal work of the post-revolutionary days of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the increasingly internationally (especially Asian)-influenced work of the mid-19th century. The museum served a generous portion of the ornamental landscapes of the late 19th century and especially of the works of Philadelphia’s own Thomas Eakins. By the early 20th century, meanwhile, abstraction began coming to the U.S. with the early works of artists including O’Keefe, and Hartley. Marin et al. While future American movements, such as Abstract Expressionism somewhat cursory nods, there is more representation of glass and Shaker Furniture.
Even more interesting than these exhibits, which are more limited than those of New York and Chicago, are the museum’s multiple, temporary exhibits. Among those shown during our exhibit were:
- Cy Twombly’s ten-canvas series, Fifty Days at Ilium, massive abstract works that are intended to represent the last 50 days of the Trojan War with parts to the Iliad thrown in.
- Retrospective of the career of pioneering abstract printmaker Sean Scully which traces a career focusing on stripes and grids of color that span an evolution of printmaking technology to his ever-more complex (including intersecting) grids and his extension into additional media including oil on canvas, watercolor, fabric, and oil on aluminum.
- Circus, in which industrial designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec express their imagination in creating attractive and fun objects in several different media.
- Elegy–Lament in the 20th Century provides examples of how dozens of artists represent grief in different ways and in different media, from Ben Shawn’s highly poignant depiction through several adapted representations of crucifixions, Madonnas, and despairing individuals and groups.
- Picture in Pictures shows many different ways to express their ideas by adding representations of themselves, their and other artists’ work, and other photos and images into their works.
- Waiting for Tear Gas with multiple representations of protests and demonstrations which resulted in or had the potential of leading to the use of tear gas and other repressive measures.
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Founded in 1805, PAFA was the first public art school and museum in the U.S. It still plays both roles. We began our exploration at the school’s 121st annual student exhibition where we found several wonderful pieces. Our favorite was Varvara Fern’s Stairway to Heaven bronze of two people walking up a wavy unsupported railway track being our favorite of the show.
This was just one of several of the museum’s shows. A large display of women artists with some connection to the city was particularly interesting. Philadelphia native and PAFA graduate Mary Cassatt is the best known of the artists. Other late 19th artists and especially those of the 1910-1930s Progressive Era who brought European Modernism to the country made notable contributions. Among these are several works by Martha Walter, Sara Carles’s 1923 In White, Alice Stoddard’s 1926 Polly, and others by Margaret Huntington, and Helen Seyffort.
The From the Ground Up exhibit focused on the 1940s-50s representations of the building—everything from George Ault’s lonely farm town to Wilhelm Thony’s joyful Arrival in New York, Louis Sloan’s tenements in Backyard, and Bascove’s more contemporary (1996) stylized Harlem River Bridges.
An exhibit of recent gifts of Contemporary American Realist works featured works ranging from the apocalyptic vision of Luis Azcuta to Tabitha Vevers’ erotic Flesh Memories and Red Grooms and Mimi Gross’s joyous Tappy Toes.
The displayed works of the permanent collection focused primarily on grand mid-to-late-19th century landscapes such as those of Albert Bierstadt and John Frederick Kensett, and portraits from Gilbert Stewart. John Singleton Copley, Rembrandt, and Charles Willson Peale, and several classical and religious works.
A small ground-floor gallery displayed several works by PAFA alumni.
A very interesting museum to visit.