Page Talbott isn’t sleeping very well these days – and no wonder. Talbott is where the buck stops for "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," the massive exhibition that is the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s all-out Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary celebration.
When you are the chief curator of an exhibition that has been years in the making, and when every minute is crammed with questions, concerns, interruptions, and crises major and minor, real life takes a back seat to dear old Ben, especially during Philadelphia’s "Philly’s Got Benergy" campaign.
"This is the first time I’ve sat down in about a week," says the soft-spoken, amiable Talbott, who was attempting to take time out from the frenetic pace on a recent afternoon before the December 15 official opening of the huge installation at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center.
The interruptions are constant. Take, for instance, the issue with the Franklin family Bible and its all-important caption. In the end, nobody but the woman who also serves as overall associate director of the Franklin Tercentenary could answer the questions about precise wording. "This is definitely crunch time. Although the artifacts began coming in last summer, the pace really speeds up just before the opening, when donors are sending pieces to us for actual installation."
As it turns out, those deliveries are no small deal. On the day of our interview, Talbott and the Constitution Center staff were bracing for the arrival of the original Franklin-brokered Treaty of Paris document. It was being accompanied, under full security detail, by staffers at the National Archives on its own special truck. "The document is of such exceeding value that it has to be in their sight every step of the way," says Talbott, adding that while it would have been easier, logistically, to have the document earlier, it is typical for borrowed treasures to arrive at the last minute. "In this work," she says, "you have to be part scholar, part watchman, part mother
hen. And I wear all those hats."
Back in 2002, as the Franklin Tercentenary began to take form under the auspices of the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Institute, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania, Talbott, an independent curator and veteran decorative arts consultant, was first contacted about working on the Franklin project. Her extensive resume seemed to match the project’s needs.
Talbott, a native of Cleveland, declines to say what her parents did for a living, but does say she grew up in a home where antiques were cherished. Talbott studied art history at Wellesley College, graduating in 1972. By 1974, she had moved on to the University of Delaware to become a Fellow in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. Two years later, she earned a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in American Civilization, where she also earned a Ph.D. in the field in 1980.
Talbott’s projects have been diverse and have taken her from Washington, D.C.’s Decatur House, where she continues to review design and furnishings plans for this National Trust property, to the 1839 Bulloch Hall in Roswell, Georgia, where Talbott has been a furnishings and design adviser since 1997.
A consulting curator with museums like the Andrew Low House Museum in Savannah, Georgia, schools like the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, and organizations like the Valley Forge Historical Society, Talbott is almost always puttering around in centuries-old buildings and artifacts.
But the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary project is, she admits, a
special challenge, and a great thrill. "The concept here was to immerse visitors in Benjamin Franklin’s world, and to do it in a user-friendly way. But first we had to establish what that world was, what artifacts were key, and how to highlight the remarkable wit and wisdom of this amazing man," says Talbott. "We had to identify and locate artifacts from individuals and institutions all over the United States and Europe, and also acquire them."
Benjamin Franklin’s 84 years were dedicated, says Talbott, to understanding and improving the world around him. No small order then, and no simple project to interpret centuries later. In the end, the 8,000 square foot "In Search of a Better World" exhibition was divided into six separate but complementary sections. They include: Character Matters; B. Franklin, Printer; Civic Visions; The Search for Useful Knowledge; The World Stage; and Seeing Franklin. The timeline stretches from 1706, the year of his birth, to today, with the last section exploring not just Franklin’s own assessment of his life, but also Franklin’s image in pop culture.
Like any curator, Talbott had her heart set on several key items. Happily, she was able to acquire them. One was that Franklin family Bible, a lectern-size, 38-pound artifact that records family births, deaths, and marriages along with scripture, and lends insight into where the family scattered. "There were even branches in Japan," says Talbott, who found that Franklin’s daughter, Sarah, known as Sally, actually became the taproot to the family tree through her seven children.
Talbott also yearned to acquire from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York the famous Duplessis painting of Benjamin Franklin in a red jacket with a fur collar featuring a rattlesnake on the top and bottom of the canvas. "The snake is iconography related to the American Revolution," she says.
Also high on the curator’s wish list was the acquisition of all the vital documents with which Franklin is associated: the Albany Plan papers, the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Amity with France, the Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. Constitution. And she hit a home run. The collection on view even includes Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, on loan from the American Philosophical Society.
Along with her sense of history, Talbott is a curator with a sense of whimsy. One of her great delights in the exhibition is Franklin’s own glass armonica (yes, no "h"), a strangely wonderful instrument with glass bowls and foot treadles that plays music. "We moderns can watch a DVD playing five songs from Franklin’s era," says the curator, who acquired the armonica from the most logical source – Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.
Talbott is also fond of a series of puppet-like creatures who "tell" Franklin lore and stories, with Philadelphia actor John Benjamin Hickey providing the actual narration.
When every last piece of the 250 assembled for the Franklin exhibition was in place – and when the intricate, sensitive lighting for various display cases had been installed and was operational – chief curator Talbott finally felt that she had met Mr. Franklin’s own standard of a job well done, as noted in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1738: "If you wou’d not be forgotten; as soon as you are dead and rotten; Either write things worth reading; or do things worth the writing."
Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," on view at the National Constitution Center, 525 Arch Street, Independence Mall, Philadelphia, through April 30, after which date it will travel internationally. 215-409-6600. For further information about the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary events in and around Philadelphia, visit www.benfranklin300.org.