Bones, lightning and nudity at Benjamin Franklin House: Culture24 on the road for Museums at Night 2009

By Rachel Hayward in London | 17 May 2009
a young woman next to a glass device in a case

Sarah Chaney, Development and Marketing Manager at Benjamin Franklin House. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Culture24 reporters have been hitting the road this weekend to report on Museums at Night events right across the UK. Here Rachel Hayward visits Benjamin Franklin House and uncovers a tale of nudity and bones...

Benjamin Franklin House is one of London’s lesser-known museums, tucked away at 37 Craven Street, yards from Charing Cross and Embankment Stations. And yet it is the world’s only remaining Franklin residence, despite the fact that it was the London lodging for 16 years of the Benjamin Franklin, US Founding Father.

a boy next to a skeleton

Prepare to be shocked by the antics of eighteenth century surgeons. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

That he was an inventor and scientist is perhaps not as well known but we were thoroughly enlightened by Benjamin Franklin House Administrator and Operations Manager/Education Officer, Alice Kershaw. Alice presented a literally crackling demonstration of how Franklin discovered lightning-transmitted electricity and came up with his very own design for a lightning rod.

We were also treated to a musical interlude courtesy of Franklin’s glass armonica invention. Think of the sound you make when drawing your finger round the wet rim of a glass. Franklin multiplied that effect with an assembly of interlocking glasses, rotated by a foot pump, to create the armonica.

a man taking a photograph of a table and chair

Visitor Justin, 34, moves in for a close up of Franklin’s writing desk. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

The fatal drawback to this musical innovation was that Georgian glasses were rimmed with lead. As musicians unwittingly tasted this lethal poison when whetting their fingers to play leading to insanity and premature death, the armonica unsurprisingly fell out of favour.

But no matter, Mozart and Beethoven composed for this eerie-sounding instrument and it was even used as a ghostly backdrop to séances.

a photo of an audience standing in a wood panelled room

The atmosphere in the audience is electric. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

The macabre tone of the evening was heightened down in the basement of the House. Here, amidst dark tales of bodysnatching and eighteenth century surgery, Sarah Chaney, Development and Marketing Manager at Benjamin Franklin House kept us rapt with a gripping description of the property’s use as an anatomy school by one of its other lodgers, William Hewson.

Hewson stayed at the House at the same time as Franklin, and his grisly work was only uncovered during renovation work in 2006 which revealed two thousand human and animal bones buried beneath the house. Skulls, surgical knives and amputated bones lined the display cases around us.

a photo of a young woman demonstrating the glass armonica in a wood panelled room

Alice Kershaw, Benjamin Franklin’s House Administrator and Operations Manager, tells the story of Franklin’s glass armonica. © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

From human bones downstairs to naked bodies upstairs, as Alice explained, Franklin was a freethinking spirit in many different ways. He firmly believed that air baths, in other words disrobing and standing in a draught rather than bathing, would be more beneficial to cleanliness and health than using water.

The man who was to sign the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 thus provided rich entertainment for his neighbours across the street on many an occasion…

Feedback - how was it for you?

a photo of a young couple sat on stairs

Evelyn, 28, and Mark, 30. “We saw it on the Culture24 website, and hadn’t heard of the Benjamin Franklin house before. It was really interesting especially the experiments. Seeing it at night gives the House a real sense of authenticity, makes it more spooky and in a small group, is much more special.”

a photo of two women standing on a stairway

Jo (left) with her friend, Elizabeth. Jo: “A very interesting evening, conveniently timed so you can do normal things on a Saturday and this in the evening is something you can do with your friends, but is a special event. I’d love to do Museums at Night more often." Elizabeth: “My friend, author Tom Knox, has just written a book called the Genesis Secret, and part of it takes place at Benjamin Franklin House. That’s why I’m here tonight.”

a photo of a woman standing next to a fireplace

Veronica: “Bones are always interesting. My background is biochemistry, and Franklin was such an interesting scientist, a fascinating personality. The atmosphere of the place is very special. It’s completely different in the evening. People are more relaxed and there’s more interaction with the place and its history."

Over 150 museums and galleries across the UK took part in Museums at Night 2009, which ran from May 15 - May 17. We hope next year's event will be even bigger and better, so watch out for news of Museums at Night 2010 on Culture24!

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