Park Service faces challenges getting Benjamin Franklin Museum reopened

National Park Service may have too few workers to reopen the Benjamin Franklin Museum.
National Park Service may have too few workers to reopen the Benjamin Franklin Museum. (SHUMITA BASU / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 21, 2013

 The reopening this summer of the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Old City may be postponed because of the federal budget cuts known as the sequester.

Initially opened in 1976, then closed in 2011, the museum celebrating Philadelphia's Great Man was supposed to be ready for the summer tourist season after a $23.1 million modernization.

But because of a hiring freeze brought on by the sequester, the National Park Service may not have enough people to staff the museum, still being rebuilt and updated. The 22,370-square-foot museum sits, mostly underground, at Third and Market Streets, near where Franklin's house once stood.

"The news gets more dire by the day as we face delaying opening the museum," said James Cuorato, president and chief executive of the Independence Visitors Center.

The center, the official visitor site for Independence National Historical Park as well as the entire Philadelphia region, is acting as project manager for the rebuilding project, Cuorato said.

Money is in hand to pay full-time staff at the museum, which would include six park rangers, said Jane Cowley, public affairs officer for the park.

But some of the rangers have not yet been hired, and no one is trained to be on staff because of the hiring freeze, Cowley added.

"We are working hard to avoid any kind of delay as the result of sequestration," Cowley said, adding that the park was considering hiring seasonal workers to staff the museum in an attempt to open it on time in July.

"It's too late to hire anyone full time, but if we can get seasonals to get us through, we'll see. At this point, we don't know."

But if the limited number of seasonal workers in the park - perhaps as many as 45 - are rerouted to work at the museum, other parts of the park would suffer, Cowley said.

The situation could change Wednesday, and perhaps be resolved, after officials huddle in Philadelphia and Washington to discuss options, Cowley added.

"We might find the answer Wednesday," she said.

Besides the museum not opening on time, the sequester could cause the Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall to close at 5 p.m. rather than 7 p.m. this summer, Cuorato said.

"That's going to make for a lot of unhappy visitors," he added. "Really, from the standpoint of giving visitors a good feeling about being in Philadelphia, which is our goal, none of this is good news. This is very frustrating."

His chagrin was echoed by Donald Kimelman, managing director of the Philadelphia program at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Pew put $6 million into the museum project and helped raise $5 million from other sources, Kimelman said. Half the cost of the rebuilding is being picked up by the federal government.

"I'm sympathetic to the Park Service's budgetary issues," Kimelman said, "but I think it would be really unfortunate if this exciting new version of the Franklin Museum ends up sitting unopened during the height of the summer tourism season."

Also contributing to the public/private funding of the museum project is philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, chairman of Interstate General Media L.L.C., which owns The Inquirer. He gave $2 million, Kimelman said.

Kimelman added that the William Penn Foundation contributed $1 million; the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, $500,000; the state, $2 million; and the city, $250,000.

In 1976, when the museum first opened, it was one of the most technologically advanced in the country, Cowley said.

Philadelphians may remember that the place featured 20 off-white Princess phones on pillars that people could use to "call" historic figures from Franklin's time.

But often, many of the phones didn't work, Cuorato remembered. "And on my first visit to the museum after I got my job here, I saw a group of school kids coughing into the phones and thought, 'My goodness, does this ever need to be updated.' "

That's happening now. "We're going for a heavily interactive experience, which makes sense, since Benjamin Franklin was a technological genius," Cowley said.


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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