Benjamin Franklin Museum may reopen after all

A protest against the federal budget cuts called sequestration was held at Independence National Historic Park on Wednesday by government workers, union members and other activists. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
A protest against the federal budget cuts called sequestration was held at Independence National Historic Park on Wednesday by government workers, union members and other activists. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
Posted: March 22, 2013

The Benjamin Franklin Museum may reopen this summer after all.

Until Wednesday morning, it looked as if the Old City museum, which is undergoing a $23.1 million modernization, would not have enough staff to open because of the federal budget cuts known as the sequester.

But on Wednesday afternoon, officials of Independence National Historical Park, of which the museum is part, announced that a regional office of the National Park Service had permitted the park to hire enough seasonal workers to reopen the museum.

"We're grateful we'll be able to open," said Jane Cowley, spokeswoman for the park.

That isn't to say, however, that all is well.

Because new staff still has to be hired and trained, the museum - initially scheduled to reopen July Fourth - may not open until August, which may disappoint visitors already facing a diminished experience at the park because of the sequester.

"If the museum isn't opening until August, we will have missed an important chunk of prime visitation season," said Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. "In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin is our guy. Even when the museum wasn't in top working order [before the current refurbishment], tourists still gravitated toward him.

"We're disappointed in the late opening."

In addition to the problems with the museum, the sequester will force Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center to eliminate evening hours and close at 5 p.m. starting in late spring, according to Cowley.

That reduction means nearly 160,000 visitors who would ordinarily tour the famed venues at night will be unable to, according to park figures.

"Limited hours at the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall will have a big effect," Levitz said. She added that the draw of Independence Hall in particular could not be overestimated. It's a World Heritage Site, one of just 21 in America. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) affixes the designation to sites of special cultural or physical significance.

Because of the sequestration, all National Park ranger-led walking tours and programs will be canceled later in the spring, affecting 2,200 visitors, Cowley said.

Other park attractions, including the Todd House and Declaration House, will be closed to visitors in May, affecting more than 63,000 visitors, Cowley said.

Further, the days when the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site will be open during the week will drop from five to three, affecting 3,400 visitors, she said.

The closures and other changes may limit the regular throng of two million visitors who flock to Independence Mall between May and September, Levitz said.

Tourists who encounter closed venues and limited hours "may just reduce their mall time and the time they spend in Old City restaurants, galleries, bars, and shopping areas," Levitz said. "They'll start to cut out other things in a spillover effect."

Despite the gloomy news on potential lost visitors, however, Cowley and others associated with the museum remained upbeat about the interactive venue.

A big part of the museum will be Skuggs the gray squirrel, a kind of mascot who will be on Twitter, giving live updates about the museum and park.

Franklin gave a squirrel named Mungo to a friend in England for the friend's child's birthday. British folk back then referred to all squirrels as "Skugg," according to Franklin in his autobiography.

After the animal died, Franklin wrote its epitaph: "Here Skugg / Lies snug / As a bug / In a rug."


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

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