Inquisitive Students: A Review of “Curious Revolutionaries” at the American Philosophical Society

January 17, 2018

Museum Exhibition Review by Sheridan Small

Throughout the semester we have been discussing how modern museums resemble and differ from their predecessors, particularly cabinets of curiosities. Therefore, it was intriguing to see an exhibit that told the story of an early museum that seemed like a cabinet of curiosities, but was adamantly not an assortment of miscellaneous exotica. Rather, it was a rational display of order and hierarchy in the world.

University of Pennsylvania “Anthropology of Museums” class outside of the American Philosophical Society Museum, next to Independence Hall. Photo by APS Museum Director Merrill Mason.

Peale’s Public Museum

The American Philosophical Society’s (APS) exhibit on the Peale family of Philadelphia, curated by Diana Marsh and Amy Ellison, immerses you in the history of what is considered to be the first public museum in America. Painter Charles Willson Peale started a museum in his portrait studio in 1786. In 1794, Peale’s Philadelphia Museum moved to the APS’s Philosophical Hall—the location of the current exhibition—where it stayed until 1810.[1] Peale hoped to provide useful information to a wide range of socioeconomic classes, including business people, farmers, and craftsmen, and increased his ability to do so by implementing evening hours.[2] Peale’s museum was no mere collection of curiosities, with its interpretation dependent upon the whim of the visitor.[3] The museum explicitly attempted to impose order on the diverse, chaotic world that Europeans were increasingly coming in contact with. This was “No hodge-podge, but an orderly exposition of natural history.”[4] Peale was a pioneer in museum practice, utilizing tickets, implementing guided tours, and inventing the “habitat arrangement” of displaying animals in a naturalistic setting, with a painted backdrop, rocks, and foliage.[5] His goal was not just to explain the world, but to explicitly create order and educate while revealing it.

Entrance to the APS exhibit, “Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia.” Photo by Lise Puyo.

The Peales also sought to entertain and consequently generate a profit. In addition to more than 250 portraits and paintings, historical items, and natural science objects, their museum emphasized “rational amusement” with demonstrations of electrical machines and chemical experiments, organ recitals, a physiognotrace producing the visitors’ silhouettes, and other participatory activities designed to instruct and entertain the general public. This mission and these accompanying activities are not dissimilar to the goals and contents of today’s museums. My own experience working in museums has taught me how much more people learn when they are having fun.

The APS exhibit displays, for example, some of the silhouettes created by Charles Willson Peale’s enslaved African-American man, Moses Williams. Williams was particularly skilled at operating the physiognotrace and even added certain details by hand. The exhibit also includes interactives, such as a replica archival folder you can flip through, a box of mystery items, touch screens with interviews and quizzes like “Which Peale Are You?,” and a case draped with a cloth protecting the delicate butterflies clustered like brilliant jewels, hidden away from the damaging light.

Sheridan Small engaging with an interactive display in the APS exhibit, “Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia.” Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The curators of the APS exhibit creatively organized the small space, a 1100 square foot gallery, into different sections. The exhibit starts with what people most frequently reported knowing about the Peale’s – portraits – including obscure artistic pieces like a 1768 sketch in Charles Willson Peale’s diary that shows a scene he stumbled upon in London: Benjamin Franklin “engaging in promiscuous behavior with a lady.”[6] The shock factor elicits humor and fosters one’s sense of Benjamin Franklin as an intriguing individual. In such a way, the curators drew on the APS’s extensive library collection (which contains over thirteen million manuscripts), including sketches, notes, letters, diaries, and newspaper clippings, to choose a few that provoke personal connections and novel considerations. The contrast between the darkly painted walls and the pale paper on display creates an optical illusion that allows the visitor to clearly see the dimly lit, fragile papers without strain.

Part of the APS exhibit showing Peale’s 1822 painting, “The Artist in His Museum.” The original is housed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Photos by Sheridan Small (left) and Merrill Mason (right).

The space has been designed to appear larger than it is through reproductions of period paintings printed on the walls: the famous painting of Peale dramatically revealing his collection pulls you into the middle section of the exhibit, referencing Peale’s museum without identically recreating it.

“Besides founding two art academies – including the Pennsylvania Academy – and the nation’s first museum, [Peale] was the patriarch of an artistic dynasty that carried out his ideals…. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the remarkable self-portrait he executed at the age of eighty-one. With more than a touch of the showman, Peale literally raises the curtain to reveal the wonders of his collection, then located in the long gallery of Independence Hall.”[7]

The image of Peale’s exhibit (originally housed in the long hallway of the upper floor of Independence Hall) visually extends the space. Boxes on the wall and glass-topped cases display thought-provoking objects. Information about these objects is momentarily withheld, being placed on signs positioned to the side of each display. This puts you in the position of a 19th-century visitor, but provides information so these objects are not orphaned in time. Just as James Peale inserted himself into his painting of George Washington at the beginning of the exhibit, peering over the first president’s shoulder, the visitor is able to imagine inserting themselves into history, feeling a connection to the past.

Sheridan Small and Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow Amy Ellison examining objects in the APS exhibit, “Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia.” Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Peale’s “Philadelphia Museum” was a national enterprise. A 1794 subscription book for tickets shows support from George Washington, John Adams, James Monroe, and other American leaders. The government was eager to lend support; the Pennsylvania legislature unanimously voted to grant Peale, rent free, the upper floors of Independence Hall.[8] Thomas Jefferson made the museum a government repository for material of great importance, such as items from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806, the first to cross the western half of the United States.[9]

APS incorporated part of the exhibit in the wider Independence Mall area by displaying a replica of Peale’s mastodon skeleton (excavated in 1801) in the APS garden on 5th and Chestnut. The replica is displayed in the way Peale would have put it, with the tusks upside down. This serves as a curiosity, a humorous joke, and a thought-provoking example of scientific fallibility and the reality of changing knowledge. There are other nods to changing interpretations. A 19th-century newspaper advertisement showcased within the exhibition actually acknowledges that the museum arrangement will be changed over time, as might best benefit the public. This raises the idea, perhaps unintentionally, that museums are not infallible, but are rather human constructions that can change – a good point for many people to consider as they visit museums today.  

Engaging with History

Our class was fortunate enough to have a round table discussion with Museum Director Merrill Mason, Museum Education Coordinator Michael Madeja, and with the two Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellows, Amy Ellison and Erin Holmes. They kindly gave us an insider’s perspective on exhibition design, including aspects that are not typically made available to visitors, like how one’s audience influences the design. This museum is a small slice of the large scholarly association that is APS. For each exhibit, staff members delve into their collection to create an exhibit that is interesting and thought-provoking for two disparate audiences: the highly educated and accomplished elected members of APS; and the general public, including tourists, who walk in the doors and might have very little background knowledge.

The Anthropology of Museums class discussing the exhibit with staff members of the American Philosophical Society Museum. Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellows Erin Holmes and Amy Ellison, Museum Director Merrill Mason, Lise Puyo, Lizzie Oakley, Sheridan Small, Malkia Okech, Anastasia Hutnick, and Katherine Ku. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

We also discussed the difficulty of encouraging visitors and tourists to critically engage with history. People come to Independence Mall expecting to see the Liberty Bell and where the Constitution was written. One of the newest “old” sites is the remains of George Washington’s home, the “President’s House” at the corner of 6th and Market; the excavations in 2000 inspired the construction of an outdoor memorial in 2010.[10] This site is easy to access; people stroll through it every day. However, few stop to read the signs and listen to the films of African-American reenactors describing life as the slaves of the first President of the United States. The APS Museum has the opposite problem. Although it is prominently located right next to Independence Hall, people often pass by without knowing it is there. The President’s House is a hidden museum in an open place; APS is an open museum in a hidden place.

Truths and Lies in the Archive and in the Museum

One topic we discussed was especially intriguing to me: the “lie of the archive.” The Peales and other APS members generated a huge collection of objects and papers concerning art, culture, and natural science that are still used today for research projects. However, this collection is neither perfect nor complete. The “truth” of the collection is influenced by what was selected, how it was (and is) catalogued, and who collected it. For example, the wives of APS members did a lot of the work that their husbands are famous for, but received little to no acknowledgment. APS’s library memorializes the people who studied others, not the people who were the subjects of those studies. Curators sometimes have to be creative when exhibiting historically marginalized groups who are not represented in the collection.

This issue of representation came up during our trip to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which houses Native American collections, but maintains no subject guide for them. Why would such a large topic be neglected in favor of others? How could Native people in Pennsylvania be deemed less significant than “architectural research”? This is just one example of how cataloging can influence access, which can silence the voices of some groups of people.

One of Philadelphia’s newest museums, the Museum of the American Revolution (MAR), bore some resemblance to a cabinet of curiosities, with Native Americans represented by enigmatic materials like wampum and fetishized objects like war clubs, and every room bursting with muskets, some displayed in artistic patterns. Like Peale’s museum, MAR has a national agenda, evidenced in the narrative of rebellious American colonists resisting immoral British treatment. There are attempts to provoke discussion through questions interspersed throughout the exhibits, but the American narrative takes precedence. Groups like enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and women seem to be relegated to the corners in MAR’s exhibits, grouped together in single cases or mentioned tangentially at the end of labels on other topics, as though their stories did not fit neatly into the dominant narrative of patriotic pride.

Peale’s museum also had a nationalist agenda in its time. A large national museum was a key part of forming a new country that would be respected by the likes of England and France, which had the British Museum (1753) and the Louvre Museum (1792) respectively. Peale’s museum reflected the nation’s power in the ability of her leading men to collect and organize the world. National exploration expeditions like that of Lewis and Clark (1804–1806) set out to see and classify everything in America’s new domain.[11] Philadelphia, in fact, was at the forefront of utilizing museums for organizing and presenting knowledge about the world.[12] Today, the APS Peale exhibit complicates that narrative, by revealing the flaws in supposed scientific discoveries, by talking about slavery, by depicting Benjamin Franklin acting inappropriately, and by encouraging modern visitors to imagine themselves present in the past. Such is the nature of museums. They change as society changes; the more we learn, the more self-reflexive we become and, with the right curators, our museums can reflect that.

This museum review was conducted for the Fall 2017 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students visited exhibitions and collections at a selection of Philadelphia museums. To compose these reviews, they analyzed content, themes, audience, message, design, interpretive strategies, and cultural representations vis-à-vis specific individuals and objects. Each student selected material on display that reveals unique insights into particular collectors, curators, and communities, and discussed the use of specific strategies for making these people and objects visible in public museums.

Sources Cited:

[1] “Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia” on the American Philosophical Society website.
[2] Steven Conn, “The Encyclopedia, the Museum, and the Collection,” Have to Have It: Philadelphians Collect (Philadelphia Museum of Art Colloquium, 2017).
[3] Edward P. Alexander, “Early American Museums: From Collection of Curiosities to Popular Education,” The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship 6 (1987), 349.
[4] Charles Coleman Sellers, “Peale’s Museum,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 43:1 (1953), 254.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Label in American Philosophical Society exhibit “Curious Revolutionaries.”
[7] Description of Charles Willson Peale’s 1822 painting, “The Artist in His Museum,” on the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts website.
[8] Sellers, “Peale’s Museum,” 257.
[9] Ibid.
[10] The President’s House Site focuses on Washington’s enslaved African-Americans to interpret “the story of the paradox of liberty and enslavement in one home – and in a nation.” The President’s House Site, Independence National Park, National Park Service, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
[11] Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 31.
[12] Sellers, “Peale’s Museum,” 257.

For an overview of museums visited by the 2017 Anthropology of Museums class, see:
• Margaret Bruchac, “Visualizing Native People in Philadelphia’s Museums: Public Views and Student Reviews,” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, December 2017.