No more Slimline phones at reinvented Ben Franklin Museum

There are interactive, talking touch screens, collage animation videos, and first-person voice-overs. There is the sound of type being set on a printing press, of a glass harmonica, and of a recitation of itemized army supplies.

In a word, the new Benjamin Franklin Museum is noisy.

“Franklin was the most sociable of people,” said co-curator Rosalind Remer. “He loved noise, he loved people, he loved music, he loved parties, he loved gathering folks together. This exhibition is meant to capture that spirit of sociability.”

The new museum, near Independence Mall in Philadelphia, will open this weekend after being closed for two years. The underground space behind the Franklin Post Office on Market Street has gone through a $24 million renovation.

The old museum, built in 1976, featured the weirdly engaging but ultimately inoperable Slimline telephone exhibit, in which users dialed up historical voices on one of 20 phones arranged in grid. It was right next to a sunken salon of miniature Founding Father figurines acting out the framing of the Constitution. That, too, was not working correctly.

“They weren’t interesting to people,” said Cynthia MacLeod, the superintendent of Independence National Park. “There were physical problems with the building that needed to be fixed. Most museums have a refresh of their exhibits before 40 years goes by.”

During those 40 years, scholarship about the life and accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin evolved, particularly around the 300th anniversary of his birth. Museums changed, too. Now, almost every exhibit on the floor has an interactive component, whether a high-definition touch screen, an object to handle, or a quiz.

The single exhibit taking up the largest number of square feet is Franklin’s study, wherein a black-and-white silhouette animation shows him sitting alone at his desk writing his autobiography while occasionally staring out the windows. “In the end,” said Remer, “he was a man of the word.”

The museum does not arrange the life of Franklin chronologically, but rather by personality trait: thrift, invention, morality, strategy, and that magnanimous sociability. Thus, he takes a slightly different hue from the industrious statesman of the old museum. Here Franklin is funny and opinionated and personable, shown in quips pulled from Franklin’s letters, many of which were filled with inside jokes.

“They are very elaborate and subtle,” said Remer. “We know him for his sense of humor in ‘Poor Richard’s Almanac,’ but the private sense of humor is more difficult to display, because it’s in letters.”

Benjamin Franklin as slapstick: While traveling together, Franklin and John Adams shared a room in an inn, fighting over whether to keep the window open or closed at night.

Benjamin Franklin as standup: In a letter to his son (printed as Part 1 of his Autobiography) Franklin, a staunch vegetarian, explains he decided to start eating fish when he realized fish eat fish. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

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