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Wednesday, 5 August 2015

#HipsterMuseum - Benjamin Franklin House

You will know well enough by now that here at The Ministry we love to celebrate London’s hidden gems, the smaller museums whose presence is often overshadowed by blockbuster exhibitions and huge crowds. But don't let this impose on their significance, those smaller, volunteer led and largely grant funded museums they can be an exciting trip into the past and our next hipster museum is no exception.

Oddly situated in a fancy Georgian terrace behind Charing Cross station (I swear this street appeared out of nowhere) 36 Craven Street or now Benjamin Franklin House is a delightful step back to the 1730’s. Funded by donations and HLF grants the house museum is run by only three members of staff and a group of volunteers offering visitors tours throughout the day choosing from the historical experience (£7 per person) or the architectural tour for £3.50.

We were invited along for the architectural tour which thankfully began with an introduction to the man himself. Benjamin Franklin is one of those annoying people who can turn their hand to anything, an inventor, political reformer and writer and he is even credited as the first American for his early campaign for colonialism. Franklin’s life was dictated by his politics and spurring his move to London was to make Pennsylvania a Royal colony rather than a proprietary province in 1764, originally intended for six months it soon turned into sixteen years staying in Craven Street and it was here that he even developed a phonetic alphabet.

Gentrification has played a key part in the life of 36 Craven Street. Previously known as the grim Spur Alley an 18th century road riddled with prostitution the 1830’s saw the street become Craven Street attracting a different sort of clientele with its close proximity to the Houses of Parliament, set back houses and coal stores under the road out front. The building soon became a lodging house where Benjamin Franklin stayed on his trips to London and for its longest stint from 1764 to 1775. It is now the only surviving home of Benjamin Franklin and one of the most intact properties of the era. Having undergone extensive conservation prior to its launch as a museum in 2006 the house hosts the only complete 18th century staircase in the world, original floors and ceilings and with many original parts of the fireplaces. The staff even x-rayed through 26 layers of paint to get the same sickly green colour that Benjamin Franklin would have experienced.

The museum sees the house is the object. A curatorial decision has made that each room was to only have one or two  props and not to be furnished with eighteenth century replicas one room may have cards and another a writing desk as the only occupants in bare crooked rooms, but it is an effective decision. The rooms are as original as possible and have removed the 'glass and rope' of other historic homes allowing the room do the talking. This is beautifully done in the kitchen where the only props are large object labels hanging from the ceiling.

However the education room in the basement does host two small and high spec showcases with a collection of human remains discovered during conservation. No Franklin was not a murderer, but his landladys son in law was a wannabe anatomist, who like all good 18th century  self-taught medical students relied on a steady income of cadavers from body snatchers and without the correct waste facilities had no option but to bury them in the ground.

The attic also features a replica glass armonica. Yet again the super successful Franklin was credited as the first American instrument maker and by this point of the tour you get the feeling he is a bit smug, especially as he apparently enjoyed two hour long air baths every morning (you'll have to find out more about that on the tour!) If you’re lucky you will get to have a go on the glass armonica and hear it produce a creepy sound mimicking the tones of a wet finger round running around crystal glass. It even inspired Mozart to write music for and has been used on the Harry potter soundtrack.

The museum is open every day 10.30am-5pm, except Tuesdays when the House and Box Office are closed for weekly Schools Day. But we would highly recommend a tour with the absence of objects or even text panels the knowledge of the guides creates a different experience meaning that is a necessity.     

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