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Museum Review–American Philosophical Society

June 11, 2015

About a month ago, I was able to spend some time with a friend in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.  This was my first trip to the city, once the capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800, while Washington, D. C. was in the process of being built.  The foundations of George Washington’s Presidential home still remain.  There really is a lot of cool stuff to see.  There are cemeteries with graves dating from the mid-18th century (if you’re into that sort of thing—I am!).  That might not sound old to many of you Europeans, but for us Americans, it’s pre-Independence, which means we can visit most of the graves of our early nation-builders.  There are buildings and churches which date from the same period.  If you’re in the mood, there are city tour guides who dress in period-costume and will take you around the city, telling you stories about the city during their character’s particular period.  (I don’t think you can book them beforehand—you just FIND them.)

Many of the places of historical interest are in one main area, the quadrant bounded by Walnut and Arch in the South and North, and Front and 8th streets in the West and East.  There are other cool places to see, such as Elfreth’s Alley.  While it sounds like a street with a friendly pub serving butter beer on the way to Olivander’s, it’s actually the oldest extant residential street in America, dating to 1702.  The houses are beautiful, well-kept and the street itself is open to the public—but don’t try to go into the houses, people do live there!

As the former capital of the colonies, the Continental Congress, and the early US, Philadelphia is home to the Liberty Bell

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia

and Independence Hall, where central documents to the establishment of the United States were agreed to and largely signed: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Federation, and the Constitution.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

Assembly Room, Independence Hall.  Or, where all the important documents were signed.

Assembly Room, Independence Hall. Or, where all the important documents were signed.

Many visitors go to Independence Hall, which is a short tour of two main rooms—the court room and the meeting room where the documents were signed (above).  Tickets are free, but you have to go to a separate building to get them, and you’ll be assigned an entry time.  The tour is worth it.  It’s short, but, as historians or archaeologists (or both) we all love to be in the historical place and touch the artifacts.  You can cruise around the area seeing other museums, like the Carpenter’s Hall museum and if you want you can wait in line for the Liberty Bell.  If the line is longer than about 15 minutes, you can skip it and see the Liberty Bell from outside the building through a window built for the purpose.

What might be of central interest to you, the reader, would be the American Philosophical Society Museum (APS).  The APS is adjacent to Independence Hall, at 104 South 5th street.

APS Museum

APS Museum

It’s a beautiful building, completed in 1789, and was once home to Charles Wilson Peale’s natural history and portrait museum—“the first successful museum in America.”  It is now home to the APS museum, which holds various temporary exhibits throughout the year, based on the APS collections of items and books.  Benjamin Franklin was the founder, and Thomas Jefferson (probably not surprisingly) was an active member of the APS.

Franklin (L) and Jefferson (R) debate the Declaration of Independence with John Adams (middle). Adams was the 2nd US President.  Franklin never held the office.

Franklin (L) and Jefferson (R) debate the Declaration of Independence with John Adams (middle). Adams was the 2nd US President. Franklin never held the office.

Jefferson was the President of the APS from 1797-1815, years which included his Presidency of the US (1801-09).  I say all of this because the present exhibition at the APS museum, as well as the previous and the next, are about Jefferson.  This one, on display from April 10th through December 27th 2015, is called “Jefferson, Science, and Exploration.”

Jefferson, like many of his colleagues, was a statesman as well as a natural philosopher.  He explored and promoted the natural history of the US throughout his public life and well into his retirement.  He wrote a number of books on the subject, and even had a feud with the Comte de Buffon about whose animals were bigger, Europe’s or the United States’.

Before I talk about the exhibit, I must fully disclose: a very good friend of mine, Dr. Lynnette Regouby, was one of the exhibit organizers.  She also took me on a personal tour of the exhibit, pointing out things I definitely would have missed and drew my attention to the various small objects around the exhibit.  A tour is not necessarily a special treat; instead, there are a number of APS staff on hand to lead you through the exhibit if you wish.  The exhibit is free, but one should leave a donation.

The exhibit begins with scientific instruments like an early electric generator and celestial sphere (star map on a globe).  As you continue through the rooms, there is display and discussion of the plant and animal life here in the US.  There are copies of Jefferson’s treatise Notes on the State of Virginia on display, open to various passages, in which he promotes the variety, size, and importance of the flora and fauna in the US.  As the third President of what was, even then, still an experiment in government, Jefferson spent much of his time defending the United States in a number of ways.  One of them was that the flora and fauna of the New World was just as good as, or even better than, that found in the Old World.  He also was the President who orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the US for the bargain price of 3 cents per acre for 500 million acres (about 42 cents per acre in today’s dollars).  Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their 2-year journey to discover the head-waters of the Mississippi River and check out the new lands.

Louisiana Purchase and Map of Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Louisiana Purchase and Map of Lewis and Clark Expedition.

There are displays about their expeditions, as well as a number of others, such as Zebulon Pike, who “discovered” Pike’s Peak in Colorado.  That is, if you count seeing the Peak from far away and claiming it as yours as discovery.  He never actually climbed his own mountain.  There are also a lot of interactive screens with maps and more information (helpful if you’re toting little ones).

The Jefferson exhibit goes until December, and their next exhibit will be “Jefferson and Native America”.  No matter what exhibit is going on, the APS museum is right on the beaten path and well worth your time.  As a regular in museums all over the world, it’s also not very crowded—even on a Saturday in springtime—which we can all appreciate.

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