Wax presidents, Black historical figures greet visitors at first Philly museum to reopen

Caleb Cattell takes a seat beside a wax figure of Frederick Douglass at the Franklin Institute. The 13-year-old from Riverton, N.J., and his family were among the first wave of visitors when the Institute reopened on Wednesday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Caleb Cattell takes a seat beside a wax figure of Frederick Douglass at the Franklin Institute. The 13-year-old from Riverton, N.J., and his family were among the first wave of visitors when the Institute reopened on Wednesday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The Franklin Institute opened Wednesday as the first major museum in Philadelphia to reopen since the coronavirus pandemic forced the city to shut down in March.

In addition to its hands-on science attractions, the museum is premiering a new traveling exhibition of Madame Tussauds wax figures, featuring all 45 American presidents as well as major Black historic figures.

In one experience, the Franklin Institute is tying together some of the biggest narratives of 2020: the fight for racial justice and the November election.

The science museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is operating at 20% visitor capacity — state guidelines allow for up to 50%. Some attractions are closed entirely, including the IMAX theater and Sports Zone. Other elements, like the exhibits on the brain, heart, and planets, are open with crowd restrictions.

Like most venues starting to reopen, face masks are mandatory, tickets must be purchased in advance, and everyone’s temperature is screened at the entrance. During the 116 days the Franklin Institute was closed, all the toilets were converted so they have touchless flushing mechanisms, and the janitors are using infrared light cleaning systems.

President and CEO Larry Dubinski said the Franklin’s safety precautions go beyond official recommendations.

“We really dug deep, not just with the CDC and the state and the city, but to our contacts national and internationally with theme parks and businesses to decide how we were going to do it,” Dubinski said. “Safety is our priority, for visitors and staff.”

A limited audience watches a show at the Franklin Institute, which opened with social distancing precautions in place. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Franklin has significantly less staff now than it did in March, having laid off all of its part-time and many of its full-time employees during the shutdown.

Among the very first visitors to the Franklin Institute when it opened its doors on Wednesday was Brian Cattell and his two children, Caleb and Grace. The Cattell family are frequent visitors to the Franklin, and Brian wanted to surprise his kids with a visit on its first day reopened.

“Frankly, we’ve been stuck inside for three months, so it’s nice to get outside and do something,” he said.

The Cattells first came to the hall of presidents, from George Washington to Donald Trump, arranged chronologically. Upon entering the room, a lanky Thomas Jefferson is lunging forward to shake your hand, next to him is his successor James Madison, who was notably short.

The Madame Tussauds company’s reputation for lifelike accuracy can be creepy.

“I felt scared because they’re all staring at me,” Grace Cattell said.

Woodrow Wilson doffs his top hat in this wax rendition by Madame Tussauds, part of the exhibit of life-size presidential wax figures at the Franklin Institute. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This lineup of presidents is normally the main attraction of the Madame Tussauds museum in Washington D.C. due to that city’s political draw (there are 24 Madame Tussauds around the world). This is the first time the figures have left D.C. for another city. The Madame Tussauds company is using the Philadelphia show as an experiment to see if the figures can be made into a touring museum package.

“I’d like to see how people take to it outside of D.C., what presidents they are attracted to and what information they are interested in learning,” said Therese Alvich, the general manager of the Madame Tussauds in Washington.

Dubinksi of the Franklin wanted to have the presidential figures in the institute this year in order to impress upon visitors their role in shaping public policy through voting.

“In an election year, to have a discussion about presidents is so important,” he said.

The Franklin Institute put its own spin on the presidents by adding science facts to the wall text of each figure: Benjamin Harrison had electricity installed in the White House, Herbert Hoover’s First Lady, Lou Henry Hoover, was the first female geologist to graduate from Stanford University, Harry Truman’s inauguration was the first to be televised.

The 45 presidents are interspersed with several notable Black historical figures, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They’re presented on equal footing as the presidents.

Khloe Moletto, 8, of Philadelphia comes face to face with a life-size wax figure of Rosa Parks while visiting the Franklin Institute with her mother, Kireena Scott. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Harriet Tubman, who I thought was this towering figure, and she’s this tiny woman! What she had done — it’s kind of amazing,” marveled Cheryl Beirne, pushing her 86-year-old mother-in-law in a wheelchair.

Including Black historical icons had always been part of the plan for the Philadelphia exhibition, even before the national outcry over the killing of George Floyd that have sparked protests across the world since late May.

“The civil rights figures were always going to be part of it,” Dubinksi said. “You look at the historical 45 presidents – it is not a diverse group of individuals. We wanted to make sure people knew there are so many historic figures not defined by gender or race, but defined by what they did.”

Charlotte Hall of Atlanta, Ga., visits the Madame Tussauds wax exhibit at the Franklin Institute with her children, Maia, 2, Julian, 5, and Laiyah, 6. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The only First Lady presented in the show is Michelle Obama, shown standing next to her husband. A figure of Donald Trump is nearby, holding onto his belt and looking sideways: if you follow his gaze, he is looking at the Obamas.

Charlotte Hall brought her three young children to the Franklin to see the presidents.

“My daughter just graduated from kindergarten, and she just learned about presidents. Her favorite was Lincoln,” she said.

Hall stopped at every figure – there are 57 in total – to give her kids a chance to get a close look. Using the wall text as a cheat-sheet, she told them something about each person.

“I feel it’s important for everyone to know that they come from somewhere. Specifically I wanted to highlight the melanated people they saw today,” she said. “I wanted them to understand that the color of your skin doesn’t matter. You have just as much a right to be here as anyone else.”

“The Presidents By Madame Tussauds” will be on view until January 2021.

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