A June 2005 trip
to Philadelphia by Owen Lipsett
Quote: In honor of the 229th anniversary of Philadelphia's finest hour, here are five museums that you really shouldn't miss if you visit the self-proclaimed "Cradle of Liberty."
Stepping inside, you’re greeted by a vast hall bisected by a forbidding staircase topped by a sculpture of Diana by August Saint-Gaudens. If the admittedly arduous task of following in Rocky Balboa’s footsteps has left you more breathless than the attractive main hall has, turn right in order to explore the museum’s superb collection of late nineteenth century and modern art, which fills the ground floor’s east wing. The French Impressionists are well represented here, as is their great intellectual heir Paul Cezanne, who was honored here in 1996 (the ninetieth anniversary of his death) with the greatest retrospective of his works since the 1930s. Moving from the beautiful to the surreal, the PMA boasts an entire room designed by Marcel Duchamps and filled with his works, including "The Large Glass: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even."
As the birthplace of Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Eakins, and the home of America’s oldest art school, Philadelphia was an important center for American art for over a century before the PMA’s foundation in 1877. Their work, as well as that of the Lithuanian-born sculptor Jacques Lipschitz, features prominently in the superb collection of American art that encompasses much of the ground floor’s west wing, and is surpassed only by the National Gallery in Washington. A complementary collection of applied art from around Pennsylvania including by the so-called "Pennsylvania Dutch" (here correctly described as "Pennsylvania Germans") rounds out this wing. This is also where the museum’s renowned temporary exhibitions (the most recent covered Salvador Dali) are displayed.
If the PMA stopped here (and you might well wish to) it would be an outstanding museum, but it’s the collections of East Asian, South Asian, Medieval, and Islamic art in the upstairs portion of the west wing that really set it apart in my mind. Few other museums offers as harmonious (or historically motivated) a presentation of the artistic dialogue between multiple cultures and none that I am aware of has so many rooms that are intended as faithful recreations of everything from Venetian palazzi to Indian temples. The finest, however, are the Moorish courtyard and recreated Japanese tea-house, which interestingly seem to be among the museum’s less visited attractions. I find them wonderful places to sit and think. While interesting, the comprehensive collections of armor and European art are probably the least compelling portions of the museum, solely because its other three quarters are so outstanding.
The PMA is essential to any visit to Philadelphia!
See the PMA’s comprehensive website for more information.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 4, 2005
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street And The Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19130
Attraction | "The Rodin Museum"
The museum itself and its location in Philadelphia are a testament to the collecting acumen and civic pride of Jules E. Mastbaum, the local movie theater magnate and philanthropist who amassed the collection with the express intention of opening it to the public. In a mere three years, from 1923 until his death in 1926, Mastbaum managed to acquire 124 sculptures by Rodin, as well as complementary drawings, prints, and letters, which are also on display. Mastbaum retained the French neoclassical architects Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber to design the building, and although he did not live to see the collection open in 1929, it serves as a memorial to his vision as well as Rodin’s.
The museum itself benefits from breadth as well as depth – its facade features one of only two versions of the "Gates of Hell," the monumental work which consumed the final 37 years of Rodin’s life, from 1880 to 1917, in existence. Naturally, a copy of "The Thinker" guards the museum’s entrance, while a version of the only marginally less famous "Burghers of Calais" is on display inside. Several of the bronzes are in turn accompanied by the plaster versions from which they were cast, but to my mind it’s Rodin’s works in stone, which by their nature cannot be recast in the way many of his works in bronze have been, that make this collection so enjoyable. Works such as "Aurora and Tithonus" and "The Awakening" seem to emerge directly from the material, as they indeed did from the master’s chisel, in contrast to the bronzes which were essentially drawn from a pre-shaped void.
Such high-minded concerns about the respective provenance of different forms of sculpture aside, their contrast serves to enhance the museum’s beauty – the dark bronzes and white stone and plaster echo the same colors in the building itself to create a delightful and rest chiaroscuro. The light and airy feeling of the museum, which is essentially a single large hall with three small galleries at its rear, invites extended contemplation and sketching, which seems to be welcomed. Unfortunately, its ample windows are a double-edged sword, as it can become quite hot in summer and relatively cool in winter. Still, as long as your mind can triumph over your body, this wonderful little museum is one of the finest devoted to a single artist anywhere.
2201 Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street
The museum has an incredibly spacious feel throughout, beginning with the large lobby you pass through to buy tickets or pick up ones you’ve purchased in advance. Admission is timed at half-hour increments, because it begins with the interactive "Freedom Rising" show. Any waiting time you have is actually an opportunity in disguise to visit the "Hall of Signers" which features life-sized bronze statues of the Constitution’s signers. The two most notable absentees are Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence (who approved of the document but was serving as Minister to France at the time), and George Mason, the so-called "Father of the Bill of Rights." Mason refused to sign the Constitution because it did not contain an enumeration of personal freedoms (the so-called Bill of Rights which was added in 1791) or establish a date to abolish slavery (unfortunately, this did not happen until the Constitution’s 13th Amendment in 1865).
I personally find "Freedom Rising," whose live narrator oversimplifies various issues amid an admittedly impressive interactive display, a bit over the top, but given the reactions of the rest of the audience, I have reason to suspect I may be a curmudgeonly minority of one. In any case, try to arrive well before your ticket time as there tends to be a line and you’re best off taking one of the seats near the top to allow yourself an easy exit into the superb main exhibition galleries. Don’t worry too much if you can’t – every seat has a great view and they’re very comfortable!
The Center’s permanent exhibitions don’t shy away from difficult issues. They primarily consist of interactive displays (the Center’s website claims that it has "17 hours of interactive content") accompanied by contemporary historical artifacts. These enable you to explore any issue in whatever depth suits you, making it an absolute joy to visit whether your level of expertise is that of a child or one of the center’s resident scholars. This makes it an ideal family activity, and given the heat of Philadelphia’s summers and its proximity to Independence Hall National Historic Park, one that I suspect will continue to grow more ever popular, as well it should!
Further information: http://www.constitutioncenter.org
National Constitution Center
525 Arch Street on Independence Mall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106
Philadelphia was therefore the logical choice as the rebellious colonies’ de facto capital. The first so-called "Continental Congress," at which representatives from the 13 colonies met to formulate their opposition to the tax policies of British King George III, met in 1774 at nearby Carpenter's Hall. The representatives subsequently moved to the larger State House, meeting there for the full duration (1775-1783) of the Revolutionary War, with the exception of the winter of 1777-1778, when Philadelphia was under British occupation.
Consequently, in a city that seems to have witnessed more American historical firsts than any other, this building was party to the greatest number of all. In addition to playing host to the two most famous document signings in American history, it was also here that George Washington was appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, the design for the American flag was adopted in 1777, and the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781. It subsequently served as the new republic’s temporary capital between 1790 and 1800 (when Washington, D.C., was completed).
The excellent, free guided tour explains this history, as well as providing information on the extremely attractive and well-furnished building itself. Work to return it to its original state began in 1876, when the pleasant (and little-visited) parkland nearby was also laid out. The sumptuous restoration was quite faithful to Philadelphians’ original intentions. They hoped to make the city America's permanent capital by making the government's stay as pleasant as possible.
Their worst fears were realized when the translation of the capital to Washington, D.C., led, in short order, to the loss of Philadelphia’s role as the country’s most important city, which it has never regained. Thus, both Independence Hall and the National Historic Park as a whole recall Philadelphia’s period of preeminence, and the sense of history in the air is quite unlike any other place in the city, or country for that matter.
Admission is free but requires planning. You should first proceed to Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Chestnut Streets, where you pick up a timed ticket that enables you to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in that order. You are assigned a time for your tour and instructed to clear security at the Liberty Bell's pavilion an hour earlier. Tickets typically run out by noon in summer, so arrive early! The National Park Service’s exhaustive website offers a wealth of information.
500 Chestnut St
Attraction | "UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology"
The museum is perhaps most famous for its extensive Egyptian collections, appropriately divided (like the Ancient Kingdom) into two parts, that span all three floors. The ground floor Lower Egyptian Gallery provides a stunning introduction to this culture as it features elements from the Merenptah Palace the museum claims are "the finest preserved part of an ancient Egyptian palace anywhere in the world." It features an original gateway, doorframes, and windows, as well as a monumental Sphinx that’s apparently the third largest in the world. The Upper Egyptian gallery is no less impressive, containing several stunningly intact statues as well as detailed displays on daily life in Egypt and several mummies (both animals and humans) within an informative exhibit on the process of mummification.
Although nothing matches the Lower Egypt exhibition for grandeur, the Mesopotamian exhibition on the top floor certainly equals it in terms of quality. It features the world’s oldest wine jar and various artifacts from the Royal Tombs of Ur so fine in quality and degree of preservation they look as they could have been plucked from shops in Philadelphia’s Jewelers Row. As these are currently traveling, you can examine similarly intricate objects in the superb "Worlds Intertwined Exhibition" which covers the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans, helpfully putting them in context with one another. Bear in mind, however, that this well-documented (and information-heavy) exhibition is extremely popular with school groups and is thus nearly always busy during the week. The similarly engaging, although less extensive exhibition on Ancient Israel and Canaan, adjacent to the classical exhibitions, is a good alternative if they are crowded.
Almost all of the museum’s non-Western collections are on the second (middle floor), the only exceptions being the airy Chinese Rotunda and similarly spacious Buddhism exhibition on the top floor. Although interesting and informative, these anthropological collections, which cover Polynesia, Africa, and Native America, are not of the same quality as the museum’s archaeological collections. Consequently, unless you’re particularly interested in these cultures, I would recommend visiting the archaeological collections first, in case you find yourself running out of time. The exhibit on Islamic culture, spanning both archaeology and anthropology and the museum’s first two floors, is similarly unexceptional. Do bear in mind, however, that these are only comparative weakpoints in a truly world-class museum.
The museum’s superb website offers a wealth of information about both the collections and the cultures they cover.
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
3260 South Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104
+1 215898 4000
New York, New York