Ephemera and Exhibition Design: Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World

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February 13, 2013 by Ephemera Society

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by Barbara Fahs Charles

Nearly 20 years ago, in 1986, Robert Staples and I received the Maurice Rickards Award for our creative use of ephemera in museum exhibitions. When working with our museum clients we would often be as fascinated by these smaller, seemingly insignificant pieces in the collections. Such ephemera—political memorabilia, advertising booklets, fliers, business cards—are charming and informative individually, but in an exhibition setting they can be easily overwhelmed by more imposing artworks and objects. But we found that ephemera en masse could effectively tell larger stories about politics or business or popular culture. We created the first of such assemblages—a 40-foot timeline of political memorabilia representing every president and his challengers from George Washington to Jerry Ford—just before the Bicentennial at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (Figure 1). Another at the Chicago Historical Society reflected the diversity of Chicago businesses from machine tool manufacturing to the publishing of Playboy. The epitome of such designs was for the World of Coca-Cola, where we mined the massive collections in the company archives to create floor-to-ceiling collages of posters, trays, fountain displays combined with photographs showing such pieces in use (Figure 2).

Conservation Awareness 
Today, there is a much greater understanding of paper conservation and potential preservation issues and it is unlikely that we would suggest or be allowed to create such dramatic “permanent” displays of ephemera. Even under the most controlled light, fading occurs, so overlapping elements may discolor unevenly. Pamphlets and bound books held open for long periods may not easily relax back to their closed positions when taken off display. And methods of attaching original items to their mounts need to be totally reversible, so even paper hinges are seldom used. Museums increasingly recognize the historical value of such ephemera and therefore give more attention to its care. Thus, printed items, and especially those in color or with ink notations, though they may have relatively low monetary value, often fall under strict display guidelines, and rightfully so.

It is common now for museums to make reproductions of paper items if they are to be on display for any length of time. Rotation is another approach, but it requires a series of similar items, so no single piece is on display for more than a few months.

Benjamin Franklin Exhibition 
Two years ago, our studio, Staples & Charles Ltd., was selected to design the premier event celebrating the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth, the exhibition Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, organized by a consortium of Philadelphia institutions—the Library Company of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Franklin Institute. Franklin was one of the founders of the first three. All five have significant relevant holdings. These treasures are being combined with loans from more than 70 institutions and individuals to create a vivid understanding of Franklin and his ideas and achievements. The breadth of items that curator Dr. Page Talbott has been able to borrow—from newspapers, almanacs, books, and documents he wrote and printed, to decorative arts and scientific instruments he owned and used (Figure 3), to this country’s founding documents, all of which Franklin had a hand in drafting—is extraordinary. Because of the conservation issues mentioned above, the more fragile items will be rotated as the exhibition travels to five American cities and then Paris.

B. Franklin, Printer
Throughout his life, and long after he was active in the printing business, Franklin thought of himself as “B. Franklin, Printer” (Figure 4). For Franklin—ambitious, largely self-educated, and never an eloquent speaker—the printing business was the ideal profession for achieving financial success and influencing civic affairs. He printed books and forms for others and secured lucrative government contracts; his publications, The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack, were widely distributed throughout the colonies; and he underwrote printers from New Haven to the Caribbean island of Antigua for a share of their profits (Figure 5).

In The Pennsylvania Gazette, he editorialized openly on issues he cared about or wrote letters to his own newspaper under pseudonyms (Figure 6). He also published, often anonymously, pamphlets advocating public action. Two important examples are his 1729 discourse on the value of paper money, his first such civic effort published in 1729 when he was 23, and Plain Truth written in 1747 to convey the urgency for a volunteer militia to defend the Delaware River from the Spanish and the Allegany Mountains from the French in a colony still dominated by Quaker pacifism. The former was embraced by the Pennsylvania legislature and earned Franklin a commission to print the money, “a very profitable Jobb,” he recalled in his Autobiography, and “a great Help to me. This was another Advantage gain’d by my being able to write.” (2). The later discourse influenced nearly 10,000 men to volunteer. The Philadelphia Regiment erected a battery with 18 cannon south of the city and selected Franklin as their colonel. But, as he recalled in hisAutobiography, “conceiving myself unfit, I declin’d the station . . . and regularly took my turn of duty there {at the battery} as a common Soldier.” (3) Even during the American Revolution on his diplomatic mission to the Court of France, Franklin installed a small press at his home in the suburb of Passy. There he printed “government” papers, such as forms for loans and documents of safe passage, useful booklets about America, and humorous bagatelles for his French friends (Figure 7). The exhibition has a wealth of such Franklin ephemera.

Ephemera as Inspiration 
Besides the wealth of rare period items, we have sought to make Franklin alive and relevant through a variety of interactive elements. Franklin was a great storyteller, often using his own foibles to make a moral point. In the exhibition, four of his stories are animated in a delightfully contemporary yet simple style.

In The Whistle, Franklin uses his childhood enthusiasm and overpayment for a whistle to question the value people place on wealth and possessions, reflecting that “As I grew up, came into the World, and observed the Actions of Men, I thought I met many who gave too much for the Whistle.” (5) Franklin mocks his owns excesses in Dialogue Between the Gout and Mr. Franklin (Figure 8), exclaiming when he meets Mdm Gout: “What! my enemy in person? For you would not only torment my body to death, but ruin my good name; you reproach me as a glutton and a tippler; now all the world, that knows me, will allow that I am neither the one nor the other.” (6) Both are from the now quite rare bagatelles, of which only two complete sets are known.

In “Swimming by Kite,” based on a letter to a French colleague, Franklin describes his fondness for swimming and how he amused himself with a kite “and was drawn along the surface of the water in a very agreeable manner,” concluding that “I think it not impossible to cross in this manner from Dover to Calais. The packet-boat, however, is still preferable.” (7) In his Autobiography, Franklin remarked on how he and Deborah went from living very frugally to enjoying more luxurious possessions. “Being Call’d one Morning to Breakfast, I found it in a China Bowl with a Spoon of Silver. They had been bought for me without my Knowledge by my Wife, and had cost her the enormous Sum of three and twenty Shillings, for which she had no other Excuse or Apology to make, but that she thought her Husband deserv’d a Silver Spoon & China Bowl as well as any of his Neighbours.” (8) Another story—from John Adams’ diary—describes the time that Adams and Franklin, two totally different personalities, who rarely saw eye-to-eye on anything, had to share a room and a bed in an inn on a cold night in New Jersey. Franklin, a lifetime advocate of “air baths” insisted on the window being open, while Adams was convinced that the night air would certainly bring illness (9) (Figure 9).

The use of other personalities, such as Alice Addertongue, Fart-Hing, or Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, was a primary method that Franklin employed to satirically attack the foibles of the rich, the social elites, the British throne and its allies, or American politicians. These “Literary Bens,” as we came to call them, are so central to Franklin’s modus operandi that we had to find a compelling way to engage the visitors.

His first, and among his most famous disguise, was “Silence Dogood.” When Franklin was apprenticing for his brother James, “she” wrote a series of 14 letters “To the Author of the New-England Courant,” his brother’s newspaper. In them, 17-year-old Franklin, in the guise of Silence, a middle-aged widow, opines on the dearth of “good-natured, sober, agreeable Companions,” declares herself an “Enemy to Vice, and a Friend to Vertue,” and decries the limited education provided for women. “What has the Woman done to forfeit the Privilege of being taught? Does she plague us with her Pride and Impertinence? Why did we not let her learn, that she might have had more Wit?” (10)

The charm and wit of Franklin’s character transformations reminded us of metamorphic trade cards, of which Bob Staples has a serious collection. Two Biedermeier metamorphics in particular gave us ideas. A charming woman who opens a window was the basis for Silence Dogood (Figure 10). A peddler with a basket of ribbons inspiredRattlesnakes for Felons, written by “Americanus,” a rustic American who feels that we must show “the highest Returns of Gratitude and Duty” to Mother England for her kind gift of convicts. He settles on rattlesnakes as the most appropriate exchange, but comments that “In this, however, as in every other Branch of Trade, she will have the Advantage of us…For the Rattle-Snake gives Warning before he attempts his Mischief; which the convict does not” (11) (Figure 11). Our third “Literary Ben,” An Edict by the King of Prussia, based on one of Franklin’s best hoaxes, published in London in The Public Advertiser, in which the King purportedly claims exorbitant taxes from England as it was originally settled by Germans, is the essence of metamorphics, but is not based on a specific card.

But what actually happens? The visitor walks up to a very large newspaper (a copy of the actual issue in which the story appeared). As the visitor opens the paper, an audio track begins in the voice of the pseudonym—Silence Dogood, Americanus, or the King of Prussia—and there is a large image of the personality. Near the figure is a lever. When the visitor rotates the lever, the personality transforms. Silence Dogood opens the window to reveal young Franklin; Americanus lifts his hat and Franklin’s face is visible; simultaneously, the rattlesnakes in his basket raise their heads and he kicks up his heel (Figure 12). The King of Prussia’s face rotates to become Franklin; at the same time the King/Franklin thumbs his nose at the British and raises the edict. In sync with the visual clues, the audio track switches from the pseudonym’s voice to Franklin’s voice, and vice versa, as visitors move the lever.

In 1733, Franklin, as “Pennsylvanus” wrote to himself, “the Publisher of the Gazette,” with a salute to “The brave Men who at Fires are active and speedy with their best Advice and Example, or the Labour of their Hands . . . Not a Fire happens in this Town, but soon after it is seen and cry’d out, the Place is crowded by active Men of different Ages, Professions and Titles; who, as of one Mind and Rank, apply themselves with all Vigilance and Resolution, according to their Abilities, to the hard Work of conquering the increasing Fire.” (12) This piece and several others expressing his concern about protecting the Philadelphia citizenry from the danger of fires, fostered the establishment of the Union Fire Company, Philadelphia’s first, by Franklin and 19 of his neighbors in 1736. In the exhibition, there are seven “settings.” Four represent places he lived—in Boston, Philadelphia, London, and Passy, France. The other three symbolize work—printing, fire fighting, and scientific experimentation. For these three, we sought appropriate period images to use as backdrops for 18th century equipment, some of it used by Franklin. A fire company membership certificate for the NY Hand-in-Hand Company, probably engraved by Henry Dawkins of Philadelphia, is the background for “Fighting Fires” (Figure 13). The certificate also became the source of imagery for an animated version of Franklin’s “Brave Men of Fires” letter (Figure 14).

Other interactives have been inspired by Franklin’s fertile mind, and the surviving artifacts and ephemera. A good example—”To Counterfeit is Death“—takes its name from a slogan printed on colonial currency, a vivid acknowledgement that counterfeiting was a serious problem in the colonies (Figure 15). When Franklin received the contract to print money for Pennsylvania, and later for Delaware and Maryland, he sought inventive ways to foil the counterfeiters. His friend Joseph Breitnall had made a series of printings from leaves, which he divinely described as “Engraven by the Greatest and best Engraver in the Universe.”(13) Noting that every leaf was unique, Franklin found in Breitnall’s prints the idea for casting leaves and incorporating them into the designs for paper currency (Figure 16). In the exhibition, visitors will see examples of Breitnall’s nature prints and samples of the money they inspired. Adjacent they can make a rubbing of leaves or use a magnifying glass combined with white or infrared light to examine the newest anti-counterfeiting techniques incorporated into U.S. currency today (Figure 17).

Another example is the Pennsylvanian Fire-Place. In the early 1740s, Franklin “invented an open stove for the better warming of Rooms and at the same time saving Fuel.” He gave the model for casting to his friend Robert Grace, who owned an iron furnace (Figure 18). To increase sales, Franklin, ever the promoter, wrote and published a pamphlet in which he explained its construction and operation, described its advantages and “answered & obviated” any objections to its use. The “fire-place” sold moderately well in and around Philadelphia. The pamphlet drew wider attention and was republished in Europe (Figure 19). While Franklin was eager to have his invention utilized, he declined to patent it, as he later explained: “That as we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.” (14) For the exhibition, we have used the engraving of a section of the stove as the basis for a half-scale enlargement (Figure 20). The flow of the air and smoke is illustrated with lights and there are places to feel the cool and warm air. Another engraving of the front of the fireplace, at full scale, will be the backdrop for the front plate of a stove that was excavated at the home of Franklin’s friend, botanist John Bartram.

Franklin as Founding Father
Franklin the writer/publisher and Franklin the inventor/scientist provided us with the documents and artifacts that became the inspirational fodder for a diversity of interactives in the exhibition as described above, as well as others based on aphorisms from Poor Richard’s Almanack. Included are Franklin’s list of virtues that he attempted to master, though admitting, “I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining;” (15) Franklin’s fascination with magic squares; his maritime observations; and his internationally recognized experiments on the nature of electricity. These interactives are all based on specific writings, inventions, or experiments.

But, Franklin’s role as Founding Father—his evolution from colonial agent to American revolutionary and his diplomatic service in France so vital to achieving independence—embraces a body of events, activities, and writings not easily conveyed in an exhibition. The exhibition includes all of this nation’s founding documents—the Albany Plan, the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Amity, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution—as well as fabulous historic artworks and decorative arts (Figure 21). But, it was important to find symbolic elements that would convey these broader issues. Two were developed.

In 1774, Franklin was brought before the British Privy Council In the Cockpit (so named for its former use for cock fighting), to explain his role in the leaking of the Hutchinson letters, which led to civil unrest in Massachusetts, culminating in the Boston Tea Party. Throughout Solicitor-general Lord Wedderburn’s hour-long verbal attack Franklin stood silent, refusing to respond. Edward Bancroft, who observed Franklin’s performance, reported “The muscles of his face had been previously composed as to afford a placid tranquil expression of countenance, and he did not suffer the slightest alteration of it to appear.” (16) For Franklin it was a transformational moment. From that point forward he totally believed that the American colonists could only achieve their full rights through independence. Shortly thereafter, his writings in support of the American cause reflect this hardened position with phases such as “for a War It will be”(17) and “Love of Liberty and Spirit to defend it.”(18)

In the exhibition, visitors will be able to walk into “the Cockpit” and experience this moment. A nearly life-size enlargement of a 19th-century engraving of this event serves as the backdrop. Mounted on it is a portrait of Lord Wedderburn by Mather Brown. Standing in the middle is a life-sized figure of Franklin, clothed in a reproduction of his only surviving suit (Figure 22). When visitors stand next to Franklin, they will activate Lord Wedderburn’s invective and feel the full measure of his fury: “My Lords, Dr. Franklin’s mind may have been so possessed with the idea of a Great American Republic, that he may easily slide into the language of the minister of a foreign independent state . . . But Dr. Franklin, whatever he may teach the people at Boston, while he is here at least is a subject; and if a subject injure a subject, he is answerable to the law . . . I call upon Dr. Franklin . . . And I am ready to examine him.” (19)

Franklin sailed for France in October 1776, returning to Philadelphia nine years later in September 1785. The value of his lengthy diplomatic effort for the American cause was immense. Without the financial support, military supplies, and troops that France provided, the British could not have been defeated. But expressing the enormity of this contribution in exhibition terms proved difficult. Ellen Cohn, editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, suggested that we look at a document that she had cited in the Papers, but not published, as it was not part of Franklin’s papers, but rather those of another commissioner, Silas Deane. “Estimate of Stores for the Armye—Estimate N3″ is a 38-page manuscript list of supplies—and the funding for them—that Franklin and the other commissioners were to secure (Figure 23). The list is extraordinary for its breadth and specificity. It commences “Gun Powder—250 tons unglazed Musket, 250 tons Cannon” and concludes “50 groce best Jews harps.” In all it includes weapons, spare parts, and ammunition, the muskets and pistols to be “the best Charleville” and marked “USA;” musical instruments and German music for field bands; chemicals and paint powders; diverse tools for gunsmiths, carpenters, saddlers, shoemakers; nails, tacks, and screws of seemingly every gauge; paper, quills, ink; personal items—typically finer for the officers and more coarse for the common soldier; window glass for barracks and linen for tents. There is a large section on uniforms for “49,024 Men of Substantial Cloth of the same Quality with the present Uniform of the French established Army,” but with a few exceptions, such as “the Skirts of the Coat are not to reach further than halfway down the Thighs” or, my favorite, “the Coats not Sloped away so as to be incapable of covering the Belly in Cold or rainy Weather, let the fashion of Europe be what it may.” The final four pages cover “Indian Goods,” including blankets of various types, calico for shirts, rifles, silver wrist and arm bands, looking glasses, smoking tomahawks, brass kettles, tin cups, Morris bells, beaver traps, and the aforementioned Jews harps. (20)

The complete document will be exhibited, but visitors will be able to see only two pages, which will vary at each venue to minimize possible fading. To communicate the enormity of the effort to provide supplies for the army, there will be a short video that scrolls through a number of the pages, with period illustrations of the items (Figure 24). Many are fromDenis Diderot et al., Encyclopédie, ou Dictionanaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des métiers, photographed from the original volumes at the Library Company of Philadelphia. For military uniforms, the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University, has been a great source, as has the John Carter Brown Library for images of Indians. Besides the list in English, there is a French version with hand-drawn illustrations conveying the difficulties Franklin sometimes had in communicating the precise requirements. The video’s audio track, based on these two documents, has Franklin confirming his requirements with a French agent.

Franklin as Philosopher
One facet of Franklin’s life—his founding of the Junto and his lifelong friendship with its members—was both seminal and secretive. In his Autobiography, Franklin describes how he had “form’d most of my ingenious Acquaintance into a Club, for mutual Improvement,” that it continued for nearly 40 years and was “the best School of Philosophy, Morals & Politics that then existed in the Province.” Had Franklin not expansively described its importance for his self improvement and the impact it had on the development of the city, little would be known of the Junto today, as few manuscript documents survive and no published materials exist. It never numbered more that 12 members and only 24 in total are known. Seven Philadelphia institutions—the Library Company, Union Fire Company, the University of Pennsylvania, American Philosophical Society, the Association for Defense of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital, and the Philadelphia Contributionship—five of which still exist, count Junto members among their founders. Franklin and one other Junto member, William Coleman, helped establish all seven. Several other members were involved with five or six of the institutions. At times during our planning we came close to leaving the Junto out of the exhibition, not for lack of interest, but for lack of artifacts. But, Dr. Rosalind Remer, the Director of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, had a concept of a tree symbolically representing the Junto. From its roots of people working together great things can be created, while the canopy represents the shelter and security community institutions provide for all.

Our “Junto” tree has a container around its base with information about twelve of the Junto members and the institutions they each helped to establish. When a visitor pushes the button by an individual member, colored luminescent fibers for each of the institutions he helped found trace from the roots up the trunk and out the limbs to light up the symbols of each institution. If twelve visitors work together, they can light up the whole tree (Figure 25).

The Junto tree is emblematic of the core message that we hope visitors will take away. Benjamin Franklin said it best in his “Appeal for the Hospital” in 1751: “The Good particular Men may do separately . . . is small, compared with what they may do collectively.” (21)


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