10/22/2008 Jill Colford Schoeniger ’86

Ben Finds Virtual Home at F&M

Ben Franklin would have loved the Internet. Ben the inventor would be fascinated by the technology; Ben the writer would be running an e-zine; and Ben the social butterfly would have a lively community of friends on Facebook.

It is altogether appropriate that this forward-looking 18th-century thinker has a museum, not in a restored mansion, but on the Internet for everyone to see. On July 1, the College took over the BenFranklin300.org Web site, created in 2006 by the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary to help celebrate Franklin’s 300th birthday.

The College received $250,000 from the commission to maintain the site.

The Phillips Museum of Art has set up a workstation where visitors can access the Web site, but the beauty of the Internet is that students, scholars and historians can access it from anywhere in the world. The site includes a narrative of Franklin’s life, Franklin artifacts and fun, educational materials, such as trivia games and mini-documentaries. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently named it one of the best online resources for education in the humanities and cited it for its intellectual quality, content, design and classroom impact.

Why F&M?

Franklin & Marshall was involved with the Ben 300 planning from the beginning. President John Fry was a member of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Commission that was appointed by President George W. Bush and Congress.

In spring 2007, the commission approached the College, said Alan Caniglia, senior associate dean of the College and vice provost for planning and institutional research.

“They said, ‘we’d like to invite Franklin & Marshall to take over as custodian.’ We responded enthusiastically. This is a great asset for us to have,” said Caniglia, who helped manage the exhaustive details of transferring the site to the College.

The scholarly value of the Web site made a college or university a perfect fit, and the Franklin connection made F&M an ideal host. “Benjamin Franklin was not just a founder of Franklin & Marshall College,” Fry said. “His innovative spirit and intellectual brilliance continually inspire our community. We look forward to helping students develop their intellectual creativity and independence through the study of Benjamin Franklin’s words, works and legacy.”

To maintain the integrity and high quality of this online exhibition, it will be administered by Acting Director of the Phillips Museum Eliza Reilly and Archivist & Special Collections Librarian Christopher Raab with the assistance of the staff of the Phillips Museum of Art. There is also an advisory board that will evaluate and approve new items for inclusion in the database.

Scholarly Value

One of the most exceptional parts of the Tercentenary Web site is the Franklin Artifacts database. Described as a “museum without walls,” this database is an electronic catalog of known surviving objects with a close association to Franklin.

There are more than 300 objects, spanning 90 public and private collections in the United States and Europe. More than 100 of these items were part of the “Ben Franklin: In Search of a Better World” exhibition that traveled to five cities in the United States (Philadelphia, St. Louis, Houston, Denver and Atlanta) and to Paris between December 2005 and March 2008. More than 700,000 people viewed the exhibition.

The artifacts are believed to have been bought by, owned by, given to and given away by Franklin. They range from everyday objects, such as furniture, silverware and walking sticks, to scientific equipment. In addition, there are portraits and sculptures of Franklin that were created in his lifetime. While many places in the United States and the world own artifacts associated with Franklin, there was no central list of who had what pieces. The Tercentenary decided that a computer database would be the best way to capture this information.

The vetting process for each of these pieces was extensive, and the end product is an equally extensive database that has immense scholarly value. The entries usually include a description, image, provenance (history of ownership) and reference to publications that cite the objects. In some cases, there is commentary on the condition of the object and links related to objects in the database. The site is not only a rich curricular resource for history and social science teachers, it also holds great opportunity for further research and independent study by F&M students.

Students could use the database to conduct research in a broad spectrum of subjects: American history, American studies, anthropology, art history, economics, English, government and science. As students and scholars use the database to do research, the College hopes that even more information can be added to fill in some missing pieces. The College also has plans to add to the collection, using the same stringent requirements that the Tercentenary used.

“Perhaps the most significant fact about the Franklin Artifacts database is its lifespan,” writes Constance Hershey, who curated the original database and is now affiliated with the Phillips Museum as a guest curator for the Franklin Artifacts database. “The database will continue to grow as new information is gathered about existing artifacts, and new artifacts are located. It is a museum whose collections can expand without the need to build new galleries.” An ever-expanding gallery seems just right for a man whose interests and curiosity knew no bounds.

Check out the many facets and faces of Ben Franklin by exploring www.benjaminfranklin300.org.
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