Philosophical Society salutes intrepid Philadelphia explorers

Posted: July 09, 2007

In what began as a possible journey to the center of the Earth, Philadelphia zoologist Titian Peale set sail toward Antarctica in 1838 aboard the USS Peacock. That a crackpot "hollow earth" theory helped persuade Congress to fund his epic 87,000-mile voyage is one unanticipated historical tidbit in the American Philosophical Society's new exhibit, "Undaunted: Five American Explorers, 1760-2007."

Peale shares the museum space with four fellow Philadelphians: the astronomical surveyor David Rittenhouse, avian draftsman John James Audubon, Arctic sensation Elisha Kane, and biodiversity pioneer Ruth Patrick, who at 99 is the only one of the five still alive.

The philosophical society was founded in 1743 by - who else? - Benjamin Franklin. Its name refers to natural philosophy, which was what people called science back then. An early supporter of American scientific endeavors, including the Lewis and Clark expedition, the society holds a vast collection of documents and objects, including a handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Though their specialties differ, curator Sue Ann Prince refers to the five featured Philadelphians as "explorers." With drawings, artifacts, maps and objects, the display examines how these explorers ventured forth to reshape their world.

"An explorer is someone who actually gets out into the field," said shipwreck-diver Peter Hess, chairman of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Explorers Club, as opposed to "a scientist who looks for truth in a microscope." He agreed that these Philadelphians are indeed explorers.

The exhibit is something of a homecoming for Peale; the building that houses the society's museum, located around the corner from Independence Hall, was actually his boyhood home.

The United States Exploring Expedition, in which Peale (1799-1885) served as a member of the scientific corps, returned in 1842 with 40 tons of artifacts, much of which seeded the Smithsonian Institution's collection. The four-year journey charted 1,500 miles of Antarctica's coast and established it as a continent - without an apparent portal through the Earth to the North Pole. On view are drawings by Peale, who was also an accomplished artist, as well as artifacts picked up in the Pacific Islands.

Although the expedition's report largely debunked the theory that the Earth was hollow, its findings morphed into the idea that an open sea was hidden at the North Pole. That is where Elisha Kane (1820-1857), a dashing naval doctor, enters the story. In the 1850s, Kane made two trips to the Arctic seeking proof of such an open sea and to search for some marooned travelers.

The polar sea was never found, of course (the travelers were, but too late). And Kane, for his efforts, ended up getting his ship stuck in the ice off Greenland for a year. He and his crew survived on polar-bear meat. A polar-bear skull is displayed with an excerpt from Kane's log: "sometimes beefy and bearable, but other times hircine [goaty] and even acidic."

Kane returned from his adventures to much fame. "America was nuts for the Arctic, like Americans for the moon in 1969," says Prince, adding that Kane "was so famous, his family donated the buttons to his naval uniform." They are on display.

Traveling the country, Kane dazzled audiences with a visual and theatrical show about his exploits. A handbill for a Philadelphia performance on May 18, 1857, promises "Sublime yet Awful Grandeur of the Polar Regions" and "Perilous Adventures & Dreadful Sufferings." Also on display are metal discs imprinted with Kane's likeness, the commemorative plates of the day.

Compared to Kane and Peale, the other scientists in the exhibit are well-known. Audubon (1785-1851), the self-taught artist and scientist, journeyed not over frigid seas, but through thousands of miles of hostile wilderness. Rittenhouse (1732-1796), the most famous colonial scientist after Franklin, used his astronomical prowess to redraw the borders of Pennsylvania. And Patrick, limnologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, pioneered the theory that greater biodiversity indicates a healthier environment.

The legacy of all these Philadelphians is that exploration is never complete. Today, new explorers must remap the poles as chunks melt into the sea. Who knows? Maybe if the icecaps liquefy, they'll find that tunnel.


If You Go

What: Undaunted: Five American Explorers, 1760-2007.

When: Wednesdays from 5 to 8 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Museum of the American Philosophical Society, Philosophical Hall (adjacent to Independence Hall), 104 S. Fifth St.

Cost: $1 (suggested donation).

Information: 215-440-3440 or www.amphilsoc.org.


Contact Erika Gebel at 215-854-2999 or egebel@phillynews.com.

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