Colonial Adventures in England: The Benjamin Franklin House

On a cold and wet May Friday in London, I decided to take refuge from the weather by stepping back into the eighteenth century. While serving as agent for the colony of Pennsylvania (and others), Benjamin Franklin lodged in a small dwelling on Craven Street, now just behind Charing Cross station and a short walk from Parliament. Though Franklin’s lodgings were originally misidentified (to the extent that a commemorative plaque was placed on the wrong house!), the original building still stands. Now the only surviving Franklin home in the world, the house is the home of the “Benjamin Franklin Historical Experience,” dedicated to telling the story of “the first American embassy.”

The Franklin House certainly isn’t a “historic house” in the normal understanding of the term. The only original artifact, more or less, is the building itself, and the owners of the House have deliberately kept the rooms empty, inviting the visitor instead to consider the space around them. In some ways, this is a welcome change from the normal historic house experience; I have been to more than a few sites where displaying artefacts is prioritized ahead of historical interpretation. There’s no danger of being overwhelmed by the material artefacts, then; in fact, you’re more likely to learn about the bones used for the landlord’s anatomy class than you are to experience the material culture of the eighteenth century. The quality of the experience insteaad rests almost entirely on a mixture of multimedia and live performance.

After being shown a brief (and frankly, rather uninformative) video about Franklin’s life, an actress playing the part of Polly Hewson (the daughter of Franklin’s landlady) appears to guide you around the house. She takes you from room to room, each containing a projected movie that sheds light on Franklin’s activities in London – be they personal, scientific, or diplomatic. A sense of crisis gradually builds up through the different rooms as the contours of the imperial crisis are introduced, before the emotional final departure of Franklin in 1775.

Presentationally, the experience was novel and memorable. The actress played her part very well, yet the lines she had been given were scarcely the greatest – an uneasy mix between pretended dialogue with Franklin and narrative of the story of his life. The videos didn’t provide much structure, either; they foregrounded the social and scientific life of London in the eighteenth century; in most rooms, the political business (which, ostensibly, was Franklin’s main responsibility there, after all!) scarcely featured until the end of each scene.

As an interpretation, I thought this presentation had much to offer. It was a welcome reminder of the connections between England and the American colonies in the eighteenth century; it also helped place the imperial crisis in a wider context (and one in which the mutual incomprehension of Franklin and his English friends was brought across nicely).

There was, however, also something unsatisfying about the experience. By failing to give any particular narrative structure to the storytelling, the experience felt rather disjointed. Being familiar with Franklin’s life, I was able to follow along quite easily. But I did wonder whether someone who didn’t have familiarity with Franklin would have really understood the importance of Franklin’s mission.

Perhaps that was the point. As I left, I was reflecting on how significant Franklin would have been even without the lasting fame accorded to him as a ‘Founding Father’. Given that (I imagine) most visitors to the House would be less familiar with Franklin the printer or Franklin the scientist, maybe the domestic and social focus of the presentation provided a different way of looking at a well-known figure. I also imagine that few make it to the Benjamin Franklin House without having some affinity for colonial history in the first place; it’s not as if Craven Street is distant from many better-known destinations.

Yet I feel there was something of a missed opportunity. The bare rooms and the video projections certainly achieved the stated aim of inviting the visitor to imagine the space around them; at the same time, though, a more traditional biographical introduction to Franklin before the tour began may have served a useful purpose in orienting those less familiar with colonial history. The Franklin House may be more than just a refuge from cold May rain, but it probably won’t revolutionize popular understandings of Franklin’s life, either.

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