Inventing America: National Museum of American History Commemorates Benjamin Franklin’s 300th Birthday

November 16, 2005

Scientist, inventor, writer, printer, musician and civic leader are just a few of the professions Benjamin Franklin undertook during his celebrated life and career. In commemoration of his 300th birthday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History presents a special display on Franklin the statesman in “Benjamin Franklin: A Revolutionary Role,” open Jan. 13 through April 17, 2006.

On display for the first time in more than 30 years will be a three-piece, silk suit worn by Franklin during his diplomatic trip to Paris that resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Alliance in 1778. Because of the fragile condition of the suit, it will be displayed for only approximately one month before being replaced with a reproduction created for this display. Franklin’s ability to both invent and project a distinctive American identity helped him garner respect and support from the French for the American Revolution. The simplicity of the suit’s cut combined with the richness of the silk fabric portray Franklin’s desire for Americans, and himself, to be seen as industrious and virtuous but also deserving of political and social equality. Accompanying Franklin’s suit will be a walking cane presented to him during his trip to France, which he later bequeathed to George Washington, and “Benjamin Franklin,” the famous portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis that was commissioned during Franklin’s stay in Paris and is on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.

“Benjamin Franklin was an international celebrity who was instrumental in gaining support for the new American nation from one of Europe’s foremost political and military powers,” said museum Director Brent D. Glass. “By displaying Franklin’s suit for the first time in three decades, we
are allowing a new generation a glimpse into the life and times of one of America’s most influential leaders.”

This rare presentation of the Franklin suit, on long-term loan from the Massachusetts Historical Society, represents a historic undertaking by the museum due to the suit’s delicate condition. Exhibiting the suit will allow museum conservators the opportunity to study the effects of light on a more than 200-year-old textile. Conservators will study the suit’s fabric and dye to help aid future preservation projects. The suit will be displayed on a special form modeled after both Franklin’s figure and posture.

The museum also is loaning a number of items to the traveling exhibition “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” premiering in Philadelphia on Dec. 15. Objects on loan include a number of firefighting-related pieces from the recently acquired CIGNA Firefighting and Maritime Collection, a printing press circa 1720 and buttons from one of Franklin’s diplomatic coats.

The museum and its Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation also will celebrate Franklin’s legacy and inventive spirit by hosting a number of public programs and events, including family activities, demonstrations and lectures, focusing on his work as an inventor and scientist. There also will be a special activity cart designed to further enhance visitors’ knowledge of Franklin’s life and work. A preliminary list of programs includes:

Jan. 21 Benjamin Franklin Birthday Celebration! — Activities for this special celebration include a visit by “Benjamin Franklin” himself, a book reading of “The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin” by author Cheryl Harness in a period costume, a birthday cake and re-creations of Franklin’s electricity experiments.

March 15 Looking American — The museum’s lecture series offers an in-depth look at Franklin’s silk suit.

March 25 Smithsonian Institution Kite Festival — In conjunction with the annual festival, the museum will offer visitors an opportunity to learn about Franklin the inventor and scientist.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage through exhibitions and public programs about social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum, located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu or call
(202) 633-1000, (202) 357-1729 (TTY).