Sampling The Varied Charms Of The Area's Small Museums

Posted: March 19, 1993

Mummers, Swedes, Jews, shoes, African Americans, bugs and body parts.

A hundred times we've driven down North Second Street and passed Fireman's Hall. Through the windows we'd glimpse the antique fire engines and say, ''Very nice, but I'm not too interested in fire engines. I'll pass."

Were we missing much?

A soup tureen museum in Camden. Rare books at the Rosenbach. A shoe collection at the podiatric college. Would the kids be interested in that? Would we?

Chances are you've been to the big-name attractions: the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Now it's time for a different kind of museum experience, and there is plenty to choose from. The question is, which ones are worth a visit?

How "good" they are often depends on how "interested" you are.

If you're a diehard-fanatical-partisan Swede supporter, you're going to check out the Swedish museum no matter how boring or mediocre it may or may not be.

On the other hand, if bugs ate your parents, you're probably not planning an outing to the Insectarium - though, objectively, it might be a terrific place.

To the extent there is an "objectively."

We went to the Poe House and the Whitman house - loved Edgar, hated Walt. For you, it might be the other way around.

And the ethnic museums present another set of issues. Many people feel a little odd walking into a place with which they don't feel an affiliation.

You don't have to be Jewish to like rye bread, but do you have to be to enjoy the Jewish Museum?

Can a museum's gift shop alone justify a visit?

To find out, we explored a sampling of the area's small museums. There are dozens, but we limited our visits to a diverse 16.

So, here's to new experiences of culture, learning, beauty and fun!

WHARTON ESHERICK. If Wharton Esherick had created only those red oak spiral stairs, he could have retired and rested on his artistic laurels.

But this painter/craftsman/sculptor/designer, who died in 1970, spent 57 years in the house he built on this wooded hillside near Paoli, turning out one treasure after another.

There are paintings, hundreds of his carvings, and awe-inspiring furniture. And every aspect of the house - the floors, the sink, coat hooks, light-switch plates, air vents, soup ladles - is a unique work of art.

Everything sings of whimsy, freedom and the creative spirit.

* Final take on the place: Deeply inspirational. A man turns his life into art.

Wharton Esherick Museum, Paoli; 215-644-5822. Hours: 10 to 5 Saturdays, 1 to 5 Sundays; by reservation only. Admission: $5; $3 for children under 12.

ATWATER KENT. This is "The History Museum of the City of Philadelphia," with more than 40,000 objects in the collection.

To us it was a lot of "stuff" sitting in cases. A bottle dug up from here, a tool dug up from there. All very historical, we're sure.

There were things we liked. A wooden water pipe; a display on how the city's population grew; the exquisitely crafted miniature collection - entire tiny rooms filled with furniture, silver, porcelain, pewter and glass.

And the museum's spring calendar has an impressive list of tours, lectures and events.

But overall, the place is somewhat dark and lifeless.

* Final take: We love Philadelphia. It wouldn't have taken much to win us over.

Atwater Kent Museum, 15 S. Seventh St.; 215-922-3031. Hours: 9:30 to 4:45 Tuesdays through Saturdays. Admission is free. Wheelchair accessible.

INSECTARIUM. We didn't want to go here.

We heard about the display kitchen and bathroom filled with live roaches (80,000 of them). We heard about the tarantulas and the giant centipedes, scorpions and assassin bugs.

We didn't want to go here . . . but we're glad we did.

A huge, horrible, ugly, beautiful, diverse, incredible collection of creepy crawlers.

Some of these guys are still scary dead and pinned to a board, but there's plenty of breathing-biting-stinging-living monsters to make your skin crawl and turn your stomach.

But many of the 1,500 species in this museum/zoo are intricate, delicate and beautiful. Like the butterfly collection from around the world. And the metallic beetles that look like solid gold pieces of jewelry.

Kids of all ages go nuts here.

Best bug gift shop in town.

* Final take: Even if you hate bugs, you'll love this place.

Insectarium, 8046 Frankford Ave.; 215-338-3000. Hours: 10 to 4 Mondays through Saturdays. Admission: $3.

BALCH INSTITUTE. A pleasant surprise. A place to learn about heritage - your own and everyone else's - as equals, without a militant ethnicity.

The new permanent exhibit "Discovering America: The Peopling of Pennsylvania" and a secondary photo exhibit convey the common bonds of work, family and struggle. Said one visitor: "I'm not a migrant worker, but what was shown through the camera revealed a sensibility that related the human, universal aspect."

A movie series and poster exhibit graphically and powerfully chronicle the history of African Americans in film.

From the director to the docents, the staff knew their stuff, knew the issues, and were eager to engage.

* Final take: Tribalism at its most benign.

Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, 18 S. Seventh St.; 215-925-8090. Hours: 10 to 4 Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and noon to 5 on Saturdays. Admission: Free; donations appreciated. Wheelchair accessible.

CAMPBELL MUSEUM. Will they serve us soup?

Not anymore. But they've got the tureens to do it.

These elaborate, gorgeous, gaudy and oversized serving bowls were the last word in conspicuous consumption in 18th-century western Europe.

They come in all manner of bizarre shapes and designs, with the heads and bodies of animals being a favored motif.

We wandered around the red velvet exhibit room for 15 minutes and had enough.

But then we caught the 20-minute video, Artistry in Tureens, showing how master craftsmen make a solid silver and a porcelain tureen (the very same ones that were on display over our shoulders).

The film gave us a new appreciation - and souped us up for another go at the collection.

If you're lucky, you'll run into radio personality and museum president Ralph Collier.

* Final take: A must - if you're into tureens.

Campbell Museum, Campbell Place off Route 676, Camden; 609-342-6440. Hours: 9 to 4:30 Mondays through Fridays. Admission is free.

AFRO-AMERICAN. On our first visit, no one greeted us, the collections did not easily draw us in and there was no one to mediate the experience.

A docent would have been nice.

Two galleries house the work of renowned African printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya. The remaining two galleries feature fabric, wood, glass, metal and ceramic crafts by African Americans.

Some of the work was colorful, innovative and ambitious. Some of it was mediocre.

And who designed this place? An ugly concrete ramp eats up a major percentage of the building's limited interior space.

A bright note was the excellent gift shop, which may be worth a visit in itself. A large selection of books on black history, culture and art, plus African sculpture, jewelry and crafts at reasonable prices.

It would be nice if one of the four galleries exhibited at least part of the museum's extensive permanent collection that tells the story of the African American experience from slavery to the present.

* Final take: For those with a particular interest in the exhibits - or the gift shop.

Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, 701 Arch St.; 215-574-0380. Hours: 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6 Sundays. Admission: $3.50; $1.75 for seniors and children 12 and under. Wheelchair accessible.

AMERICAN SWEDISH. This is the kind of museum that would have bored us as little kids, but as big kids we like it.

The building is modeled on a 17th-century Swedish manor house and is appealing both inside and out.

Pick up the "Self-Guided Tour" brochure at the front desk and wander around on your own.

Each of the 14 rooms varies dramatically in content, design and ambience. You'll learn about Swedish-American history, design, the interior of a 17th- century Swedish farmhouse, the Nobel prize, the accomplishments of Swedish women, Jenny Lind, and Emanuel Swedenborg.

The 20-minute movie - well-made, well-acted and funny - tells of the time 350 years ago when the Swedes were the top dogs in these parts.

* Final take: Much more interesting - and fun - than it sounds.

American Swedish Historical Museum, 1900 Pattison Ave.; 215-389-1776. Hours: 10 to 4 Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 4 Saturdays and Sundays. Admission: $2; $1 for students and seniors; free for children under 12.

ROSENBACH. Rare books and manuscripts. Paintings. Furniture. Objets d'art.

Abe Rosenbach, the foremost rare book dealer of his day, and his brother Phillip, died in the 1950s and left us a treasure trove in this 19th-century townhouse.

Visitors get a deliberate, detailed guided tour. Ours lasted an hour and a half, and seemed only to scratch the surface of the extensive collection.

Art by Sully, Canaletto and Daumier. Manuscripts from Dickens, Conrad and Joyce (including his Ulysses). Thousands of drawings and watercolors by Maurice Sendak. It goes on and on.

Not for everybody, but if you like discussing the fine points of an 18th- century Hepplewhite breakfront, this is your place.

Leave the munchkins home.

* Final take: A slow walk through culture and beauty.

Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2010 Delancey Place; 215-732-1600. Hours: 11 to 4 Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $3.50; $2.50 for seniors and students.

WAGNER FREE INSTITUTE. The building, the display cases, the walls - everything is something to see here. It's a museum of a museum.

William Wagner (1796-1885), Philadelphia merchant and philanthropist, wanted to make science available to the masses. The 1865 building houses a collection of more than 25,000 specimens - mollusks, minerals, fish, birds and dinosaur bones.

The museum is one giant exhibition hall filled with vintage wood-and-glass display cases arranged by Joseph Leidy in 1891 to illustrate Darwin's theory of evolution from simple organisms to humans.

The museum was on the cutting edge of science in its day, and virtually nothing's been changed in the 100 years since.

Don't let the location stop you. The Wagner is next door to a police station.

When she's available, director Susan Glassman's grand tour will help bring the dead things to life.

* Final take: Like stepping back in time.

Wagner Free Institute of Science, 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue; 215-763-6529. Hours: 9 to 4 Tuesdays through Fridays (by reservation only for school groups). Admission is free (donations appreciated).

MUMMERS MUSEUM. Whenever we think of guys spending all their spare time in some garage in South Philly sewing feathers and sequins on a cape, we are reminded of Kierkegaard's theory on existential commitment: It's making a commitment that counts, not what you commit to.

You be the judge.

It's pretty much what you'd expect: Costumes, displays, Mummer history, some hokey interactive units (many that weren't working).

Fun was "learning" to do the Mummer's strut in a mirrored dance area, and pushing buttons to create an orchestra that played the Mummers theme song, ''Oh Dem Golden Slippers."

* Final take: For Mummerophiles.

Mummers Museum, 1100 S. Second St.; 215-336-3050. Hours: 9:30 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 Sundays. Admission: $2; $1.25 for seniors and children 12 and under. Wheelchair accessible.

EDGAR ALLAN POE. Two of the six years Poe lived in Philadelphia, 1843 to 1844, were spent in this three-story rowhouse.

You enter through the house next door, which has been turned into a mini- museum. Through a nine-minute film, exhibits, literature and information

from the specially trained rangers (the site is administered by the National Park Service) you find out about Poe's literary struggles, his chronic money problems and his doomed marriage to his 13-year-old first cousin.

Next you wander through the house itself - nothing but empty rooms, peeling paint and ambience de Poe.

Learning about Poe's anguished life, then walking through his barren house is an eerily affecting experience.

Our favorite thing: A free (while supplies last) full-size poster caricature of Poe.

* Final take: All-around good job for those even mildly interested.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, 532 N. Seventh St.; 215-597-8780. Hours: 9 to 5 daily. Admission is free.

MUTTER MUSEUM. A weird place.

The gigantic intestine from a man who was chronically constipated. A tumor

from Grover Cleveland's jaw. The connected livers from Siamese twins Chang and Eng.

Skulls. Lots of skulls. The lady who turned to soap. Skeletons of a 7-foot, 6-inch giant and a 3-foot, 6-inch dwarf.

Horrible, revolting body growths. A face with a tumor the size of the face.

Still taking risks with your social life? Go see the VD wall, complete with rotted body parts and purple genitalia.

Our favorite thing: that we're not specimens in there.

* Final take: Don't go after lunch.

Mutter Museum, 19 S. 22nd St.; 215-563-3737. Hours: 10 to 4 Tuesdays through Fridays. Admission is free (donations appreciated). Wheelchair accessible.

AMERICAN JEWISH. Three people greeted us warmly, offered assistance, then left us alone when we said we wanted to wander about by ourselves.

Materials are presented so as to be accessible to Jews and Gentiles.

The permanent exhibit, with 250 objects, photos, and an eight-minute video, successfully communicates "The American Jewish Experience."

Along one wall, a time-line compares world history, American Jewish history, and American history (with attention to the civil rights movement)

from 1492 to the present.

A high-quality gift shop sells a wide array of Jewish ceremonial and art objects.

* Final take: Great for those interested in Jewish culture.

National Museum of American Jewish History, 55 N. Fifth St.; 215-923-3811. Hours: 10 to 5 Mondays through Thursdays, 10 to 3 Fridays, noon to 5 Sundays. Admission: $2.50; $1.75 for seniors, students and children ages 6 to 12; free for children under 6. Wheelchair accessible.

FIREMAN'S HALL. Antique fire engines are just the beginning.

This authentic 1876 firehouse is packed with exhibits, art, the history of firefighting, and fire prevention.

And - what a delight! - every display is thoughtfully and artistically executed.

There are nice little touches everywhere: A hand-drawn engine is displayed on a carved marble slab saved from a 19th-century firehouse. A door handle is a fireman's ax.

Most of all, you get a real feeling for the life of a firefighter - the courage, the commitment, the brotherhood. A row of crushed and battered helmets show the danger.

You can wander around the two-story museum on your own, but better is to chat up Harry Magee, director of the museum and a fourth-generation firefighter.

After 19 years in the Fire Department, Magee burns with sincerity and knowledge.

* Final take: Terrific family outing.

Fireman's Hall: The National Fire House and Museum of Philadelphia, 147-49 N Second Street; 215-923-1438. Hours: 9 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays. Admission is free. Wheelchair accessible.

WALT WHITMAN. A gloomy little rowhouse in Camden, overflowing with photos, paintings and busts of America's most celebrated poet.

He may have been a whiz with words, but the more we learned about Walt's life after he bought this house in 1884, the less we liked him.

He was rotten to his housekeeper. He apparently didn't like women, and wasn't that crazy about men.

Probably the only people he got along with were those who idolized him, and turned his house into a shrine after his death in 1892.

If you want to go, see it soon. Renovations later this year to restore the house to the way it looked when Whitman was there will close the building for a while.

* Final take: For those interested in Whitman or urban history. Others may be better off reading his poetry instead.

Walt Whitman House, 330 Mickle Blvd., Camden; 609-964-5383. Hours: 9 to noon and 1 to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission is free.

SHOE MUSEUM. "Footwear Through the Ages" is what they call the 800 shoes

from around the world, displayed in cases on the sixth floor of the podiatric

college.

Julius Erving's custom-made sneakers, Billie Jean King's tennis shoes, ancient Egyptian burial sandals, Moroccan double-heeled wooden clogs, the shoes used in binding the feet of Chinese women.

Slippers, sabots, snowshoes, boots and ice skates - a peda-phile's delight.

You can just drop in, but it's better to call ahead and line up curator John Minot to give you the tour. He's funny, in a shoe-collection kind of way, and his knowledge of the shoes and the cultures from which they came greatly enhances the experience.

* Final take: You don't have to be Imelda Marcos, but it helps.

Shoe Museum, Pennsylvania College of Podiatric Medicine (sixth floor), Eighth and Race Streets; 215-629-0300, Ext 185. Hours: 9 to 4 Mondays through Fridays, by appointment only. Admission is free. Wheelchair accessible.

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