As we walked out of the “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World” exhibition at the Bowers Museum, my pal Melita turned to me and said, “What surprised me the most was all the 'mutual aid' talk. Looking out for each other, the common good. I didn't expect that.”
I didn't, either.
My knowledge of Franklin prior to the exhibition was the usual high-school Founding Fathers stuff, Bill Maher's classic quote that “[The Founding Fathers] were everything [Tea Partiers] despise. They studied science, read Plato, hung out in Paris, and thought the Bible was mostly bullshit,” and my (then) limited reading about him. I knew about his book of aphorisms, Poor Richard's Almanack; that actor Tom Wilkinson played the portly, bald intellectual as a historically accurate pussy hound in the HBO series John Adams; that Franklin “discovered” electricity (not accurate); that the execrable musical 1776 has him—ugh—singing and dancing. The biggest surprises of the exhibit happened inside me: I realized my “knowledge” of the man was pretty scant and that the real flesh-and-blood maverick was far more than the idealized grade-school cartoon flying a kite or apprenticing under a mean brother.
Inventor, author, humorist, social activist, philanthropist, scientist and politician is how we remember him, but here's but a short list of achievements by the man on the $100 bill, courtesy of the exhibit (and the Bowers' generous press release), some of which don't get much press: Franklin published Boston's first newspaper. He founded the nation's first hospital, fire-insurance company, circulation library and police department. He pioneered wind surfing and invented swim fins, the lightning rod, the stove, bifocals, the glass armonica (a musical instrument) and the catheter. He introduced the concept of daylight-saving time and coined electrical terms such as “battery,” “charge” and “discharge.” He founded the University of Pennsylvania. He was the only person to sign all of this country's founding documents: the Declaration of Independence; the Treaty of Alliance, Amity, and Commerce with France; the Treaty of Peace between England, France and the United States; and, last but not least, the historical document worshiped by the Tea Party, the Constitution.
He was a man of contradictions: Franklin owned slaves but published abolitionist pamphlets. He never put his name on the pamphlets, fearing it would be bad for business, but he started schools to educate slave children. He was a consummate gentleman, but he was also very competitive and cheated at chess. He had strong opinions about political matters—including a nagging dissatisfaction with the Constitution—but subordinated his desires to reach compromise with others. He loved his wife, spending 27 years with her, but was away on government business so often that she spent much of her life alone, raising their children; she died without him at her side. Franklin was a man of property and wealth, regularly investing in the businesses of others for a cut of the profits, but he had beliefs closer to small-s socialism than laissez-faire capitalism, writing, “An enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights and the common happiness of mankind.” He felt that states should have laws preventing the possession of too much property.
Packed with information—much of it explained in Franklin's own words on placards—the exhibition is humorous, revelatory and even inspiring, with animation, recorded narration and interactive exhibits. Concerned about some of the more contentious facts about Franklin? Save a brief mention of an illegitimate son, the exhibit sidesteps the thornier aspects of Franklin's life and, while unlikely to interest children, is wholly accessible for young adults.
If you're more interested in looking at artifacts than reading placards, shame on you! But to suit your tastes, the Bowers features 75 items on display, large and small, many of them owned/touched/held by Franklin: a chess set; a china bowl he used for breakfast; a handwritten business card; ink balls used to place ink on a printing press; books in which he wrote his name and comments; a set of Franklin bells with a Leyden jar; Fugio pennies (the first coins issued by the United States) designed by him; and the aforementioned armonica, glass globes mounted on a spindle and set in water that turned and made music when a wet finger was placed upon them.
Seeing the exhibition just days after the attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, with people arguing about the need for a new civility in public discourse, I was profoundly touched by the life of a man I thought I always knew about and realized I didn't. Two weeks later, after discussions with Franklin scholars, reading sections of Franklin's autobiography and doing research for this article, the humor, ingenuity, intellect and compassion of one of America's most influential men was a shining example of what people can aspire to if they have the desire to help instead of harm.
This review appeared in print as “Rolling In the Benjamin: The latest Bowers Museum exhibit shows there’s more to Benjamin Franklin than his face on the $100 Bill.”
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.