Philadelphia's smaller museums offer fascinating fun

Chemical Heritage Foundation LIBRARY • MUSEUM • CENTER FOR SCHOLARS315 Chestnut Street
Chemical Heritage Foundation LIBRARY • MUSEUM • CENTER FOR SCHOLARS315 Chestnut Street
Posted: June 10, 2012

I've lived in Philadelphia for almost 20 years and occasionally revisit the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall with out-of-town guests. I've seen the striking new museums on Independence Mall — the National Constitution Center and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

With a day off in the middle of the week, I decided to visit three of the more than 20 museums tucked throughout Philly's historic district. At the Shoe Museum, I was treated to a personal tour by the curator. In "Making Modernity" at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, chemistry is transformed into a dazzling display with cutting-edge exhibition design. And "Money in Motion" at the Federal Reserve Bank engages with high-tech computer interactivity and billions of dollars.

All are fascinating and free to visit.

Right on Independence Mall, directly across from the U.S. Mint, whose popular exhibit is closed for renovations, is the "Money in Motion" exhibit at the Fed. While the Mint makes the money, the Fed manages it.

Visiting the Fed is a bit like going through airport security or getting beamed off the Enterprise. There is an X-ray for your belongings and a cylindrical glass magnetometer for you.

Once inside, you stand above the $7 billion in cash that moves through the Philadelphia Fed every day. You can't see the money — the exhibit replaced the tour after the attacks of 9/11 — but the museum does a good job explaining the history of money, banking, and the Fed. The exhibit is also perfect for anyone, particularly teens and preteens, looking for buttons to push and games to play.

The look of the exhibit is slick and polished, and everything was working the day I visited. For more serious students of banking, there are interactive exhibits exploring monetary policy, inflation, economic forecasting, and crisis management. The most accessible of these, "Eye on the Money," gives you a behind-the-scenes tour of the Fed's operations below your feet.

There are also lots of interactive games meant to make information on banking interesting and accessible. In "Supervision Mission," you take a management-training test as you move up the ladder from bank trainee to investment manager, answering questions and raking in bank profits. Do you know who is most likely to pay back a bank loan? Hint: It's not the person who owns the most expensive car.

The most popular interactive game is "Match Wits With Ben," with a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire format. I suggest you swing by the "The Fed Family" panels before trying the game, and know that if you play multiple times, it starts to mix up the answers so you can't whiz through.

While it is a bit disappointing not to get to see all the cash, there is a bright orange "currency cart" with $1,350,000 next to a 25-foot tower of shredded bills; $6 billion in currency is shredded here every year.

On the way out, the guard stopped me and asked if I wanted a souvenir. I promised not to say what it was, or at least to mention that you have to actually look at the exhibit before asking for one. And no, you cannot get one for each of your 18 grandchildren.

While the exhibit at the Fed is high-tech, the "Making Modernity" exhibit at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) has more in common with Philadelphia's wonderful Victorian Mütter Museum or the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Located in Old City, next to Franklin Court, it is like getting inside the mind of a scientist, full of objects and images waiting to be explored.

Founded in Philadelphia in 1982, CHF works to preserve the history of chemistry and promote its understanding among the general public. As a result, it has taken on the difficult task of appealing simultaneously to retired Ph.D.s and high school sophomores.

"When we asked scientists what first drew them to chemistry, they focused on the bright lights, colors, peculiar smells, and explosions. It was an aesthetic experience," said Tim Ventimiglia, project director for Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), who designed the exhibits. RAA has designed exhibits ranging from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to "John Lennon: The NYC Years."

Here they translated the scientist's world view into a dazzling museum space. With local firm SaylorGregg Architects, RAA stripped down a banking hall from the 1860s and inserted a shimmering structure of glass and steel, managing to evoke a high-tech lab and a lavish Victorian exhibit hall at the same time.

The foundation made the unusual decision to display most of the collection in the open so all the knobs, buttons, and beakers are in easy reach. According to Kathryn Tusler, the visitor services assistant, "The retired scientists are the ones we have to watch the most closely and warn them not to touch."

One of my favorite items, a book titled Charitable and Easy Chemistry for Women, from 1666, was under glass. Having everything else out in the open makes objects that would otherwise seem foreign — such as the electrospray ionization mass spectrometer used by John Fenn's team to win the Nobel Prize in 2002 — feel much more accessible.

As a nonscientist, it took me awhile to appreciate how the objects are thematically rather than chronologically grouped. And without familiar science superstars such as Ben Franklin to guide the way, you have to be willing to lead your own investigations.

In the display "New Currents," wet-cell batteries, a crank telephone, tourmaline and lithium, an electroplated tea service, and an aluminum necklace cascade across a wall. Surprisingly, it reminded me of both a 19th-century butterfly collection and an afternoon on the Internet, surfing and making connections from one image to the next.

For those in need of computer graphics, there is a soaring video column in the center of the room. The staff call it Dmitri, in honor of Dmitri Mendeleev, developer of the modern periodic table. It displays the work of Theodore Gray, who transforms the dull letters of the periodic table into dramatic images of elements exploding, vaporizing, and freezing.

Like the "Making of Modernity" exhibit, it turns something dry and abstract into a grand spectacle.

If you are ready for something much more modest in scale, the Shoe Museum is tucked up on the sixth-floor corridors of the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine on the edge of Chinatown. Tours are by appointment only and conducted by the collection's curator, medical librarian Barbara Williams. The museum was created in 1976 for Bicentennial visitors and now caters primarily to podiatric students and faculty and curious history buffs.

While the shoes are fabulous — everything from Egyptian burial sandals to Mike Schmidt's Nikes to Joan Rivers' Manolo Blahniks — the true treat is Williams herself. In my three-plus hours with her, I got a fascinating insight into both the world of shoes and museum collecting.

Williams likes to think about all the crazy things we do to our feet, including square toes, straight bottoms, and 6½-inch high heels. She ponders why shoes are pointed and illustrates with shoes from across the globe and history — golden Indian slippers, wooden work clogs worn by French peasants, bright red satin stilettos. But, she reasonably states, "No one has ever had pointed feet."

Williams' empathy is clear when she talks about the extremes of footwear. There are intricately made and heartbreakingly small three-inch golden lotus slippers worn by Chinese women with bound feet.

The largest shoe on view is a size 20 belonging to a woman who was a patient at the hospital. She suffered from gigantism and later had the foot amputated. "I would love to find out who she is," says Williams.

Williams also has a soft spot for Beth Levine, a seminal 20th-century American shoe designer. There are a playful clear plastic car shoe and a sedate black pump with a dime floating in a clear heel. When Williams last spoke to Levine in 2006 about a donation, the designer said, "Most [of my shoes] are in museums, but I will see what I can find." Two days later Levine died, and Williams clearly regrets the lost gems.

Of the 1,000-plus shoes in the collection, only about 300 are on view. The good news is that Williams may take you behind the scenes and let you peek in the boxes. When the Civic Center Museum closed in 1995, they called to see if Williams would take the museum's collection from the World's Fairs of 1893 through the 1930s. With nowhere to store them "22 boxes of shoes sat in my dining room for three months," she said.

Williams is also delighted to learn from visitors. She discovered the origin of an Indian slipper when a 10-year-old visitor said, "My dad has those! Those are wedding shoes!"

When I mentioned Maxwell Smart's shoe phone, her eyes lit up. If you know where to get one, call and make an appointment to visit the Shoe Museum.

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