Annette's note (6/28/08) Since my 2007 visits to the Benjamin Franklin House, there have been substantial changes, and the director of the House has responded to my review in a comment below, which I encourage you to read.
From Lauren, a former student of mine, who wrote to me on Facebook:
"Just wanted to tell you, I've become a bit obsessed with public history. I'm in Virginia with my cousin and I dragged her to Monticello to analyze it...must tell you, it was much better than Ben Franklin's house in London! haha."
I was thrilled to get this message. Lauren took my course in public history last summer, during our incredible University System of Georgia London Study program. She is already a history buff, which always helps, but our emphasis in this class was very different from others that I teach. It doesn't focus on a specialized body of knowledge, but rather on the ways in which history is interpreted for the public.
If you're a regular reader, you know I already mentioned this class and our London adventures. We also visited the only remaining house in which Benjamin Franklin ever lived, while he acted as a colonial representative (a cushy job, really.)
Even before the House opened to the public, I had heard about its creative interpretation, and was excited about visiting. However, when I visited in January, 2007, I was disappointed. All the same, I decided to retain the trip in my summer 2007 course, and see how the students responded. I made absolutely sure to exude neutrality, to avoid influencing them.
They thought the Benjamin Franklin House was hilarious.
It didn't help that there was a glitch that day. After buying our tickets from a well-hidden theatre box office in the arches under Charing Cross Station, we turned the corner onto Craven Street, and knocked on the door of Number 36. After entering a typical eighteenth-century London townhouse, with its cramped hall and narrow staircase, we were quickly ushered into a ground-floor room for the orientation video, which is a rather messy montage of words and images shot in rapid-fire MTV fashion.
Now, I'm all for unsnotty history, but this was too much: When my students think something is being dumbed down, that's telling. As one said, we knew no more about Franklin at the end of the video than we did at the beginning.
And then we waited. And waited. Nobody arrived. Nothing happened. We called up the stairs. We sent a messenger back to the ticket office. Finally, a somewhat disheveled interpreter dressed as an eighteenth-century woman announced herself as Polly Hewson, the daughter of Franklin's landlady. We were told later that there were technical troubles, and received profuse apologies that were reminiscent of Monty Python's dirty fork sketch. My students, being a cynical lot, were convinced that the real reason was that the interpreter was late for work. I'm not sure they were wrong.
The interpreter gives the entire tour as Polly Hewson. However, my students were rather shocked when she broke character to tell off a visitor (not with our group) who took a photograph. This was just one illustration of why it's never a good idea to supply visitors with only a first-person interpreter. Worse, the format hinders questions, especially from adults, who are usually reluctant to play-act.
The Benjamin Franklin House embraces museum as theatre to an extraordinary degree. Most radically, visitors are asked to imagine the furnishings of the house (there is one table, I seem to recall, in one room, but that's about it.) As recorded voices and music float about, abstract images play on the walls: When the actor playing the voice role of Franklin speaks of a shipment of cranberries, we see a video of cranberries rolling around.
Quite honestly, it was all a bit artsy-fartsy for the audience, including me, and that's saying something. I'm all for the idea of engaging audiences with the use of imagination, but it has to be done with an eye to that audience, and not merely as an act of artistic expression.
On my first visit to the House, another visitor, a middle-class Englishwoman in her sixties, had confessed to me on the way out her disappointment with the experience. "I like to look at furniture when I visit old houses," she said. But had she learned something about Franklin that would make her want to read more about him? "Not really," she said forlornly. How to interpret this visitor's reaction depends on how one chooses to read it. My take is that it would be very easy—and a huge mistake-- to dismiss such visitors as lowbrow aesthetes, more interested in knick-knacks than getting to grips with history. This visitor was no stranger to historic sites, and clearly was educated. The fact of the matter is that people want a tangible connection with the past, and the bare house simply put more of the burden on visitors to forge that connection than they were prepared to make.
There were moments of levity: We did learn that Franklin basically left his wife Deborah to stew in Philadelphia while he lived it up in London. The presentation doesn't judge him for this, explaining that Deborah had refused to cross the Atlantic, which I can't blame her for. But my students were properly scandalized, especially in light of Franklin's relentless flirting. The good thing was that this put a human gloss on an otherwise cardboard Franklin.
But the whole thing is too hero-worshippy for words, presumably in a misguided effort to lure Americans and their dollars, which are worth much less than when the House opened a few years ago. And the breathless way in which the visitor is introduced to Franklin as an amazing man capable of holding a gazillion jobs at once is a bit much. Talented, likeable, and admirable though Franklin was, was it really impressive that he had time to be the London rep for the state of Georgia? I mean, what could that have entailed—asking around in the pub occasionally if anyone wanted to buy land in Savannah? I say all this not to dis Ben, but because, like most historians, I dislike the sort of public history that encourages the view of individuals, no matter how impressive, as demi-gods. Frankly, it's off-putting to learn that the best people are already dead, and that they are a separate race from the rest of us.
The presentation ends with the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, which was written after Franklin was dead and buried. Another effort, one presumes, to appeal to Americans. Quite honestly, the Americans who (like my students) take the initiative to come all the way to London are generally a bit more wordly than they are given credit for.
So, do I recommend the Benjamin Franklin House? For adults, sort of: Go and let me know if you agree. Quite honestly, it's almost more fun when museums don't work well, because they make good stories. My students had a field day critiquing the House.
But for kids, no, I can't recommend it. In fairness, I never saw a kid on the tour, either time. But the whole thing was too high-minded, too abstract, and too lacking in visual stimulation and interaction to persuade me that the average kid would have a good time. School groups may do better, because the House offers tours specifically for them. The casual visiting family, however, would most likely find the tour a little dull and frustrating.