No.79 Innovative America on Display in Philadelphia

It was a pleasant surprise to find that there is no end to the varied and obscure Museums in Philadelphia. Ben Franklin is pervasive in Philadelphia. And rightly so since he laid the foundations for most institutions in the city and, in a larger sense, the country. So, when in Philly, you sometimes find yourself wondering, “What would Ben Franklin do” in such-and-such situation? At least we did. So applying this strategy to our museum schedule, considering his love of science, art, and innovation, we picked an itinerary we thought Ben would have appreciated. One of them he might even have visited personally!

1 Rodin Museum

The story of how Philadelphia’s Rodin museum came about is as interesting and curious as any museum-founding-story I have come across. It goes like this: In 1901 Samuel Stockton White, the twenty-five-year-old heir to Philadelphia’s S.S. White Dental Manufacturing company, was on a trip exploring Europe. While in Paris, he met Auguste Rodin, who, intrigued by the athletic physique of White, asked if he would model for a sculpture. White, amused by the proposition, agreed, and the result was Rodin’s sculpture, “The Athlete”.

Back in Philadelphia a few years later at a social gathering, White met the wealthy movie theater magnate and philanthropist, Jules Mastbaum. Mastbaum mentioned to White that he was in the process of looking for sculptures to place in the foyers of his movie theaters across the country. Fresh off his modeling experience in Paris, White told him about Rodin and suggested that Mastbaum might like his work. Intrigued, Mastbaum started voraciously collecting Rodin sculptures. With the resources to back up his fancies, a collection soon developed and within only three years he had amassed the biggest collection of Rodin sculptures outside France. His collection included such notable works as The Kiss, The Thinker, Eternal Springtime, Burghers of Calais, and The Age of Bronze.

Fortunately, the sculptures never made it into his movie theaters. Mastbaum decided to build a museum especially for them, and bequeathed the museum to the city of Philadelphia for all to enjoy. He hired French architects Paul Cret and Jacques Greber to bring his vision to life and on November 29, 1929, the museum opened to the public.


Sadly, Mastbaum himself never saw the museum finished, but his widow made sure that his vision was brought to completion. He also stipulated that the museum must be free of charge, so all visitors, in perpetuity, would be able to appreciate Rodin’s art as he had.


A striking feature of the collection is the set of massive 5.5-meter tall bronze doors forming the entrance. Rodin sculpted more than 100 figures for the doors and several of his most famous pieces initially showed up as figures in the epic scene. The doors were originally sculpted for the Museum of Decorative Arts outside Paris. Sadly, that museum was never built. But because of Mastbaum’s obsession for possessing Rodin’s work, you can now enjoy Rodin’s masterpiece right in Philadelphia, on the Museum Mile.


The sculptures are amazing to behold, and the museum, with its classic Cret and Greber Beaux-Arts interior, is a real treat. If you can’t make it to Paris anytime soon, the Rodin museum will go a long way to transporting you there.


Make sure you leave time to sit outside on the benches to take in the environment and view—weather permitting

2 Physick House

Heading over to Society Hill, the district named after the 18th-century Free Society of Traders, Physick House is the only free standing Federal Townhouse remaining. The house was built in 1786 by Henry Hill, a wealthy Madeira merchant. Madeira being one of the few products not being taxed by the English at the time, it helped Hill amass a large fortune.


The house is a perfect example of the Federal Style, which evolved from the English Georgian style, but was more of a name change than an actual evolution, as America sought to find its own voice and rid itself of all things English after its revolution. The house has grand proportions and several interesting furniture pieces exhibiting the heights of early American craftsmanship. Of particular note are the mahogany wood flatware holders on the ground floor. They are not immediately evident, which is one of the reasons they are interesting, so ask your guide to point them out.

When Dr. Philip Syng Physick bought the house, he was already a renowned doctor, with many prominent patients, such as President Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice John Marshall, and Dolley Madison. It is said that Physick was initially reluctant to take up the medical profession, but with his father’s insistence, he came around to the idea and eventually became very successful at it. In his private life success was more elusive. A notorious scandal involving his wife’s departure from the house caused a great stir in Philadelphia’s high society.


For his many inventions and revolutionary surgical techniques, he is now known as “The father of American surgery”. On display on the second floor are many of his surgical innovations: blood-letting tools, stomach pumps, and various apparatus for the removal of kidney stones.

Expressing a true American entrepreneurial spirit, you will also see his invention, “Dr. Physick’s Black Cherry Soda”, which was prescribed to his patients to cure gastric disorders … to no physical effect. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. It was recently brought back by the Philadelphia Brewing Company. I think you will find that while it is in no way medically beneficial, it is quite delicious nonetheless.


On the way out we were greeted by J. Del Doner, Dr. Physick’s great-grandson, who still lives in a small flat in the house: amazing to be greeted by a descendant of this early American medical innovator.


3 Eastern State Penitentiary

It is amazing when you think of how many things started in Philadelphia that we just take for granted. For one, it’s where Ben Franklin lived and his cavalcade of inventions alone constitutes a sizable contribution toward what America has come to be. So many things first made an appearance there, too many to list, but to name some of the biggies: the first medical school, the first national bank, the first fire engine, and, particularly pertinent to this story, the first public museum.


Add to that list the first penitentiary, an idea first mentioned in the home of Ben Franklin. As opposed to a jail, a penitentiary, as the word denotes, promotes penitence and rehabilitation. While the idea promoted in Philadelphia’s penitentiary was ultimately a failure, the instinct to reform rather than discard was, I think most would agree, the right impulse. We are still wrestling with this today and, in many respects, failing. One of the reasons for failure both then and now is overcrowding.

Philadelphia’s penitentiary, in its original conception, was arranged around the idea of silent contemplation, with each inmate having a small living space, complete with heat and plumbing, and an outdoor “yard” of the same size, for fresh air and exercise. This was quite innovative, especially in 1829, at its opening. Both spaces were designed for total silence and total exclusion from all human contact. The guard even wore special felt shoes to make sure no sound penetrated the inmates’ environment. The only light in the cell was through a single round skylight in the ceiling referred to as the “eye of God”, which was put there as a constant reminder that God is always watching.


Looking at this today the proposition was bound to fail, but I can imagine that were this experiment allowed to develop and evolve something may have come from it. Unfortunately overcrowding quickly mitigated any possibility of something good coming from what were genuinely “enlightened” intentions.

Another innovation that was highly influential was the radial arrangement of the cell block around a central observation point. For this and all the Penitentiary’s experimental features, a constant stream of visitors, especially from Europe, came to learn. And many prisons for the next 100 years took on this form for its efficiency of manpower for the chief activity in a penitentiary, observation. Notable visitors were writer Charles Dickens and diplomat and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. Both were influential thinkers of the time, from England and France, respectively, and spread the ideas contained in Eastern State Penitentiary’s initial plan.


Before the first few radial arms were even constructed, demand outstripped capacity and things went downhill from there. Modern-day notoriety came with the housing of gangster Al Capone, and bank robber Willie Sutton.


Today the structure has been left in a sort of controlled decaying state, which is very conducive to flights of imagination. It’s spooky but easy to find yourself reflecting on the trials and tribulations that echoed through the halls over the years. With narration by Steve Buscemi, the recorded tour is fascinating. The long history of the place provides touch points with Philadelphia history over a vast stretch of time. It’s well worth the trip to the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia.

4 The Mutter Museum

From the city center, we walk west along Market Street, past the enormous glass and steel skyscrapers which form Philadelphia’s distinctive skyline rises on these downtown blocks. It’s lunchtime and the streets are alive with cubical dwellers of all sorts hitting the streets for a quick bite. What a contrast when you take a left on 22nd Street to find a classic Mid-18th century building, representing a vastly different age.

The Mutter museum began its long history back in 1863 when physician Thomas Mutter donated 30,000 dollars and his personal collection of 1,700 bones, plaster casts, medical illustrations and other pathological artifacts, to the society of physicians. All these items, collected during his long practice, represent his determination to improve and reform education for the medical profession.


And Mutter’s mission has been pursued continually since the museum opened. Building on Mutter’s original collection, new items are added regularly to promote the academic study of physical and mental maladies. For instance, now on display you will find Einstein’s brain, 139 human skulls accumulated by Viennese doctor Joseph Hyrtl, a cast of Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, and the famous soap lady, a medical mystery discovered when an exhumed body was found encased in a strange fatty substance called adipocere.

The prominence of the Mutter is such that Madame Curie herself came to the museum at the end of her career to drop off for the museum’s collection, her famous Piezo-Electric apparatus, which she and her husband used in their discovery of radium and polonium.

While the museum’s exhibits are fascinating, the mood is somewhat somber as each item on exhibit typically represents a story of great personal hardship. But that is the brilliance of the Mutter, to challenge us all by putting stories on display that would be otherwise buried and hidden away–like the exhibit of Einstein’s brain. Einstein did not give his consent for his brain to be studied. It was removed without permission. The lesson is about scientific ethics and how they have shifted over time.


Due to the sensitive nature of the items on display, there is a strict no-photography rule, which is another way the Mutter forces its visitors to step into a simpler time and reflect on how society is evolving. (I have to say it is quite nice to be in a public space where visitors are focused on the objects on display instead of checking messages and taking selfies.)

If you’re a fan of the PBS series “Mercy Street” you won’t want of miss the second-floor exhibit, “Broken bodies, suffering spirits: Injury, death, and healing Civil War Philadelphia”. Even though no Civil War battles took place in Philadelphia, soldiers were brought here for treatment by the tens of thousands, on carts, trains and steamboats. The exhibit gives you a glimpse into what it was like to be a nurse, a wounded soldier or a doctor in those medically challenging days.


We ended our Museum tour on a peaceful note, in the Benjamin Rush medical plant garden. Rush, a signer of the declaration of independence who helped found the College of Physicians, believed that medicinal plants were essential to curing patients and should be part of every doctor’s practice. In 1937 the College finally brought his idea to fruition with this healing garden, which is today in full bloom.


For opening hours and directions go to;
1 Rodin Museum: www.rodinmuseum.org
2 Physick House; www.philalandmarks.org/physick-house
3 Eastern State Penitentiary; www.easternstate.org
4 Mutter Museum; www.muttermuseum.org Please be aware that there is absolutely no photography allowed in the main museum gallery due to the sensitive nature of its objects.

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

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