What were your roles on the project?
DC: Our brief was to create a new museum – replacing the one that had been there since the seventies. It had to be a ‘world class’ museum, bringing a contemporary interpretation to the life of a man who is very close to the hearts of Americans. Whilst the aim was to create an engaging experience that would particularly serve the thousands of school children who visit Franklin Court throughout the year, the other important audience was the many heritage tourists from the US and the world. We were approached because of our work at the Churchill Museum that opened in 2005. Both museums are underground and about the same size – 800sq m.
RR: Remer & Talbott were guest curators on the project. We dealt with the project management and were responsible for the designers and fabricators as well as content management. I had been Executive Director of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary touring exhibition, so the Pew Foundation (who had funded the tercentenary exhibition) asked me to be involved.
When the original museum opened in 1976 for the Bicentennial of Independence it was quite simple; it had only one permanent exhibition and a movie theatre. In the 36 years that had passed since, it had not changed. One of the challenges for this new exhibit was that it needed to stand the test of time. We had to assume that the exhibition technologies we used would need to last as long as the original ones had.
What constraints were there on the re-imagining of the museum?
DC: The constraints were concerned with the space, and the lack of original objects for display.
The underground venue was purpose built to house the museum. It sits directly underneath the white steel structure known as the Ghost House. This delineates the position, shape and scale of Franklin’s house and print works that was demolished by his family after his death. However, the museum space, with no natural light, is deep underground, and, when we first visited it down a series of dark ramps, it felt like we were heading for an underground car park. At its centre, the space also has core of untouchable archaeology, and this determined the need for the circulation to use it as a form of roundabout.
In terms of the objects and artifacts, they are, due to the period we’re dealing with, quite obscure and do not easily ‘speak’ to school kids and teenagers. Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, writer, printer, shop keeper, Post-Master General – before he was a politician. None of these occupations are close to the understanding of contemporary audiences, fed on the digital world; and the associated objects – scientific instruments, a printing press, black and white documents and illustrations are only of interest once you give them a context and a chance to tell their stories. Add to that the need for a contemporary, family-friendly space, and the process can be challenging.
What is the structure of the exhibition?
RR: The Tercentenary show had been chronological and thematic. When we carried out surveys, we found, however, that people had been overwhelmed by Franklin’s story. They felt that they could never be like him. There was a lack of accessibility in spite of it being a friendly and humorous show – the catalogue was simply too big.
When we sat down to rework the ideas, we looked for other access points. We looked at his character traits and how you could investigate his life using these. When you peel back the layers, Franklin had traits like anyone else.
We worked with the National Parks Service on the interpretation, layout, themes and stories which Casson Mann then designed. Casson Mann wanted to give a sense of the domestic spaces, of the rooms in a house, whilst not following the exact layout of a house. The exhibition is very free flow and each room acts as a space where you can explore aspects of Franklin’s personality and character traits.
The satisfying part is how Remer Talbott and Casson Mann worked together. This evolved organically through discussions. Sometimes design can drive content but in this case it didn’t, which was ideal.
DC: It occurred to us early on, that the dividing line between work and living for someone like Franklin would have been very thin. Apart from the work he did in the printing house, most of his business meetings, his writing, experimenting and thinking would have taken place in his house. For this reason we took the plan of the house, already laid out at ground level as part of the Ghost House installation, detached five of the rooms from each other, retained their proportions, and laid out the exhibition as a visit to a sequence of abstracted ‘rooms’. Curators were able to distribute content into different rooms by connecting each to a particular character trait.
Each room is clearly marked by a change in floor surface, ceiling height, wallpaper and freely adapted pieces of furniture – and an important, free-standing door structure that carries the title and provides a visible menu to visitors as they enter. We also organized the space so that visitors can move freely through the rooms, allowing for better circulation and self-discovery. In the centre is a long bench for rest and reflection that also carries a graphic timeline.
What were the objectives of the project?
DC: Biographical museums are special. Our task is to balance the deep and detailed interest of the curator with the more general interests of visitors – some of whom may be very familiar with the subject, while others are not. This concern for the individual visitor makes the exhibition narrative key to sustaining interest and engagement from entrance to exit.
What products or technologies did you use?
DC: We encourage exploration and discovery through an imaginative combination of old and new ‘touch’ objects and models, replica artifacts, physical interactive games and exhibits, digital interactive displays and animations. The media aspect was a combination of existing assets – re-purposed from the Franklin touring exhibition – and new commissions.
Further innovative commission was a material for the rooms that represented wallpaper. This needed to be sufficiently durable to survive 15-20 years without replacement. Our solution was a material made by 3form made from compressed recycled soft drink bottles with a digital printed pattern layer. This was changed for each room to match the icon created for its identity.
RR: We used a layered approach with the different elements. There are artifacts; hands on tactile elements both for people with sight issues and for kids who like to touch everything. We have physical interactive games and flip books which show primary documents. We also have a number of touch screen interactive elements to explore which have been built into the furniture. There is a large table which is dedicated to Franklin’s designs and maritime experiments. When you touch the screen it takes you to the original engravings which you can move around. We then show how these designs have been resolved to something relevant today. As well as interactive, there are passive pieces. Everyone has different learning styles so there is never one story linked to a single object – there are always other pieces to reinforce. Each artifact needed to earn its place and to add to the story.
Were there challenges during the planning or implementation? How were they overcome?
DC: The assumption was that us being in London and the project – and client – being in Philadelphia would, in itself, be a challenge. But, in fact, much can be achieved with increased focus and efficiency – with a fair distribution of visits, and Skype calls of course.
The main challenge was the large team of organisations involved, with National Park Service at the centre. The architects were based in Washington, the services engineers in various US locations, the contractor in New Jersey and the audio-visual supplier in California. This team were used to working at distance and across time zones within the US so we slotted into this way of working.
What consideration was given to sustainability?
DC: An underground museum provides an inherently stable environment, and we trod as lightly as we could. All environmental and interior material choices were made with sustainability in mind, from flooring material to lighting – using LED light fittings. There was also a commitment to source display materials from local (or US) suppliers and, in line with US policies, all steel had to be sourced by the contractor from Pennsylvania.
What, for you, are the highlights?
DC: There are aspects of the design that are definitely ‘European’ but the exhibition still has an American look and feel.
With a limited number of authentic objects, many of the stories are told through audio visual and interactive material. This compliments rather than overwhelms the real objects. One highlight would be the evocation of Franklin’s library where a full end-of-wall projection shows a wood-cut Franklin at his desk, writing his autobiography, the critical journey from script through to print is witnessed; and this takes place in a room encased in thin timber allowing the silhouette of the stacked books and objects in the library shelves to show through.
RR: I am particularly charmed with the phenomenal art and the AV interactive and passive pieces. Not only do they tell a story, but they are gorgeous works of art in their own right and I am thrilled with the artistic approach. The room that evokes the library is a mysterious jewel box of a room. Franklin is evoked through silhouettes – animated woodcuts of him taken from a 1930s book about his life. They are timeless illustrations. Artifacts are great, but the AV is phenomenal and it is what, for me, makes the museum.Back to top