Benjamin Franklin in Paris

Trip Start Sep 15, 2005
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Trip End Mar 05, 2014


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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Paris is celebrating Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday in a big way. There are two major exhibitions in town, with documents and many objects borrowed from the United States and Britain, as well as from France. The exhibitions are based on the shows mounted in the United States last year celebrating Franklin's birthday, "In Search of a Better World", but both of the French shows are more slanted towards Franklin's influence in France and Europe. The first exhibition we saw was over the weekend at the Carnavalet--Paris'city museum, and one of my favorites. I hadn't realized how much influence Franklin had in Paris, nor how much the French were enamored of him, but after seeing the expositions, it is clear that Benjamin Franklin remains one of the most revered Americans in France.

Benjamin Franklin spent many years in Paris, or close by in Passy. He signed the Treaty of Paris in 1773, clearing the way to independence of the colonies from Britain. The new US Congress sent him back to Paris as Minister to France to help finance the Revolution, where he stayed for nine years--from 1776-1785. Later, he was appointed Plenipotentiary, and lived outside of Paris in Passy. He was always a favorite at the French court, and much sought after by women who thought his silence (his French was not perfect so he often spoke little in their company) was a mark of his brilliance. Franklin was such a huge hit in Paris that even wallpaper, and toile patterns included his visage. Aside from his political station,


Franklin was present when the first hot balloon went up, he helped create French baths, encouraged healthy pursuits, including the teaching of swimming and regular swims in the Seine. Franklin also kept company with Voltaire and other pillars of the Enlightenment. He served on juries that helped eradicate medical quackery, and even suggested a new theory of Daylight Savings Time to save the French multiple hours of sunlight.

In turn, the French taught Franklin that slavery was against the rights of all men, and helped reform his thinking on the subject.

I found it interesting to see how close the relationship between the colonies and France was...and the role many Frenchmen (beyond Lafayette) played in sourcing for the Revolution,providing armies, ships, and armaments, as well as political support against England.

Seth likened France and England at the time to Michigan and Michigan State: two powerhouses, both alike in dignity, but always at odds. England won nearly all of their naval battles, and France was hardly ever defeated by land, yet both claimed their forte to be the only proper measure of a nation's greatness, kind of like Spartan basketball and Wolverine football.

The historic perspective at the Carnavalet included many precious documents, including a draft of the Declaration of Indpendence, with many edits and rewrites. One can be grateful there were no word processors in their day, as those revisions give historians an opportunity to understand the thought processes of the writers.

At the Musee des Arts et Metiers, there is a concurrent exhibition of Franklin that reflects more upon Franklin's scientific and technical innovations, "Benjamin Franklin: homme de sciences, homme du monde". Both expositions complement each other although there is some overlap. Arts and Metiers offers a hands-on approach to many of its exhibits, and although the lighting was too low, it is the first museum to allow photographs of its special exhibitions.

The expo at Arts et Metiers contends that because Franklin was a scientist, it opened the door for the French to take him seriously as a diplomat, but that was about the only political comment. In a beautifully presented show, there are samples of a 'fan' chair that Franklin invented to cool oneself while sitting that visitors can try throughout the exhibit, his anti-counterfeiting measures that are still in use today, a fire truck and pail from his fire company, electrical lab instruments and correspondence between Franklin and British and French scientists such as Lavoisier, who were working on similar electrical theories. There are drawings and observations by Franklin on trade winds and suggestions for a faster and more efficient rudimentary propeller as well as Franklin's printing press and ink balls. Computer games allow visitors to experience the difficulty of working the printing press. There are also several paintings and busts of Franklin at Arts et Metiers, and an authentic copy of the Declaration of Independence--the final version. (Perhaps that explains why the lighting is so low.) There were examples of Franklin's glass harmonica (a gorgeous instrument with haunting sounds) that he invented, for which Mozart and Beethoven both composed music. The instrument at the Carnavalet was missing many of its crystals, but the instrument at Arts et Metiers was beautiful, and I taped a video of someone playing it, so be sure to click on it. At the time of Franklin's death, there were about 5000 such instruments in Europe.

I did not see the exposition in the USA last year, but I would have liked to have been able to compare the thrusts and the point of views presented in the different venues.
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