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“Phantastic” Philadelphia

When tourists think of new museums constantly opening,

they think of Washington, DC, and the Mall. When they think of Colonial American Cities, they think of Colonial Williamsburg. One city travelers should think of more often is Philadelphia with its four great new 21st-century world-class museums. 


Let’s start with the newest first — the National Museum of the American Revolution (opened April 19). Whether it’s in Shanghai or San Francisco, interactive museums are usually science museums. How’s this for “unique” — a museum of art and history that’s also interactive – and not just “voluntarily” interactive, it’s also “involuntarily” interactive. While standing watching a video reenactment of the Battle of Brandywine — you also literally feel the impact of the canons reverberating through your feet standing on a “rumble mat.”


The American Revolution is presented in a series of tableaux — as if Norman Rockwell (with his popularization of Americana) and Madame Tussaud (with her lifelike figures) collaborated. Instead of history presented in dusty-glass cases — children will enjoy history being acted out.


And for those who like their history behind glass — this museum has that, too. The museum focuses on themes arranged chronologically. It goes full circle from George (King George III) to George (Washington) — starting with decorative pottery emblazoned with America’s last king, George III and ending with pottery emblazoned with America’s first president, George Washington. 


While the visual popularization of the American Revolution might scare off traditionalists, there’s something for them too — reverence. Just as Turin (Italy) cherishes its holy shrine, the Shroud of Turin, the Museum of the American Revolution cherishes Boston’s famous Liberty Tree. Embedded, in the trunk of a life-size reproduction of the Liberty Tree, is a relic — a piece of the actual Liberty Tree. 


St. Petersburg’s Hermitage exhibits Catherine the Great’s tent in its distant Hermitage storage annex. The Museum of the American Revolutions turns George Washington’s wartime tent into a big production — literally. It’s an intense experience without actually visiting “in tent.” The tent is presented in its own theater as the star of its own movie – dramatically appearing at the very end. 


To round out a full picture of the American Revolution, the museum explores heretofore-bypassed subjects — the involvement of Native Americans and slaves. 



If interactive displays and interacting life-size figures didn’t already show the American Revolution in a new reality – mid-19th century photographs of American Revolutionaries will — capturing images of actual 18th-century people who look like your grandparents. 


As long as you’re in the 18th century, here’s a dining suggestion. A block away is the colonial City Tavern featuring 18th century decor, 18th-century costumed wait staff, great gourmet 18th-century food — at reasonable 21st-century prices. 


While I’ve eaten at Colonial Restaurants in Colonial Williamsburg, the City Tavern’s chef, Walter Staib, reinterprets 18th century recipes making them his own. He’s also has his own ongoing PBS TV series, A Taste of History, now in its 8th season. As a dessert and bread aficionado, I had my choice of six desserts including Martha Washington’s chocolate mousse cake. Most colonial restaurants offer one type of bread. City Tavern has three: Sally Lunn, andama, and sweet potato biscuits – Thomas Jefferson’s favorite. (Since Jefferson was slim and Martha, not so much, I helped myself to sweet potato biscuits bypassing the chocolate cake.)


While Colonial Williamsburg is a showplace for Colonial American Architecture, Philadelphia has more than its share of historic 18th-century buildings including the seldom-visited Dolly Todd (Madison) House. Unlike Colonial Williamsburg, Philadelphia’s City Center has America’s finest Greek Revival Architecture including the First Bank of America (opposite the Museum of the American Revolution), the Second Bank of America, and my favorite, the Merchant’s Exchange, with its exquisite curving colonnade. 


A short walk from the City Tavern is the National Museum of Jewish History – again a national museum based in Philadelphia — which even has an affiliation with the America’s most famous national museum – the Smithsonian. As befitting another museum set in America’s city of Independence (and located on Independence Mall), this museum is strong on America’s colonial Jewish experience – including prominent Jewish colonial Philadelphia families. The NMJH designed by James Stewart Polshek opened November, 2010. (FYI: James Stewart Polshek was my dean of Columbia Graduate School of Architecture. One of my first-year design critics happened to be the architect of the Museum of the American Revolution – Robert A.M. Stern.)


If you like Paris, sections of re-planned early 20th-century Philadelphia can almost pass as the real thing. At Logan Circle is the Free Public Library of Philadelphia and its twin – Family Court Building – looking like duplicates of the twin 18th-century Ange-Jacques Gabriel buildings overlooking the Place de la Concorde – the Hotel de Crillon and the French Naval Ministry. Just as Paris’ Place de la Concorde marks the logical beginning of the Champs Elysees, Logan Circle marks the logical beginning of Philadelphia’s Champs Elysees lookalike – Benjamin Franklin Parkway.


Located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway is one of the world’s greatest private art collections, the Barnes Collection (opened in May 2012) – relocating from its former largely inaccessible suburban Philadelphia location. For those who miss the intimacy of the ensemble-painting placement in the original building, the magnificent new building recreates many of those original rooms so the paintings are still hanging in the same location to one another. Paris’ Musee d’Orsay may have the world’s finest collection of French Impressionists but the Barnes Collection comes in a close second.


If you’re coming from the National Museum of Jewish History, start with its collection of 14 Modiglianis (the great Italian Jewish Expressionist) and then proceed to the 19 Soutines (yet another Jewish Expressionist.) Don’t miss the many Jacques Lipchitz’ bas reliefs and sculptures commissioned just for the Barnes Collection. 


Like the Musee d’Orsay you’ll find many great 19th century paintings from Manet to Monet, but unlike the Musee d’Orsay there are also many great Old Masters such as Canaletto, Durer, El Greco, Hals, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian. Paris may have its Picasso Museum but the Barnes has a whopping 46 Picassos.


Another relatively new Philadelphia museum is in a recycled building. It’s a very rare type of historic building –the only surviving building from Philadelphia’s great 1876 Centennial World’s Fair – a large magnificent beaux art building that looks similar to Paris’ Petit Palais — another museum built for another world’s fair – the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. (However this time Philadelphia pavilion likely inspired the Paris one.) It’s a great museum for children and their families. In fact, as a single man, it’s a museum that I would definitely be apprehensive visiting alone since the children museum’s official name is “The Please Touch Museum.” (Not “kidding.”)

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