by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Philadelphia is a jewel box of unique and spectacular, even life-enhancing attractions, a treasure trove of history, heritage, culture that glitters particularly during the holidays. The holiday splendor is eye-catching and warms the heart, but any visitor still has to make time to experience first-hand at least some of these iconic places. I manage to bookend my holiday merrymaking with a mix of art (Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia Magic Gardens) with history (Independence Hall) with heritage (National Museum of American Jewish History) with science and enlightenment (Philly is the hometown of one of our most enlightened inventors, Ben Franklin, and so I end this visit with the Franklin Institute.
We spare no time once we drop our luggage at The Roost East Market, park the car in the garage, but grab an Uber to race over to The Barnes Foundation. The Barnes Collection is one of the world’s greatest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modernist paintings, with especially rich holdings in Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes between 1912 and 1951, the collection also includes important examples of African art, Native American pottery and jewelry, Pennsylvania German furniture, American avant-garde painting, and wrought-iron metalwork. In fact, we are told, Dr. Barnes has the greatest collection of Renoir anywhere – 181 of them acquired by Dr. Barnes between 1921 and 1942 that you actually see (as opposed to museums that keep most of their collections in storage). Plus 69 by Paul Cézanne; 59 by Henri Matisse; 46 by Pablo Picasso; 21 by Chaim Soutine; 18 by Henri Rousseau and the list goes on and on, as you walk from gallery to gallery to gallery.
The building complex is new, but the gallery rooms re-create the rooms and how Dr. Barnes displayed his art, intentionally juxtaposing masterworks by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso next to ordinary household objects – a door hinge, a spatula, a yarn spinner; a French medieval sculpture displayed with a Navajo textile; African folk art with Modigliani and Cubists. Dr. Barnes called these dense groupings of objects from different cultures, time periods and media his “ensembles.” He meticulously crafted the ensembles to draw out visual similarities – even the source of inspiration. He meant them as teaching tools, essential to the educational program Dr. Barnes developed in the 1920s.
“He believed you could as likely learn about how to do surgery wandering through a hospital as art wandering through a gallery – you have to be taught how to see, what to look for,” a docent explains. “He wanted people to appreciate how culture influences art.” She adds, “He wasn’t an artist himself.” In fact, she relates, 10 years ago, Central High School (Dr. Barnes grew up in a working class family in Philadelphia), came across his school books. “He got A’s in everything but art.”
At the Barnes, you experience these masterworks in the most intimate manner, as if visiting a home (albeit a mansion). We are exceptionally lucky to visit when the museum is not at all crowded (actually we are there until closing) – I even get to have some of the art completely to myself. It is very comfortable to view – many of the rooms (and they seem to go on forever, one after another) are small and there is seating in each one, with guides to the artwork at hand. But you should try to take a docent tour. At one point, the docent pulls up a photo of Henry Matisse, sitting on the very bench and gazing at his own painting in that very room.
In every room, you are astonished to see art that is amazingly familiar – because they are so famous: Georges Seurat’s “Models” (the basis for “Sunday in the Park with George”); Vincent van Gogh’s “The Postman”; Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players”; Edouard Manet “Laundry”; Pablo Picasso “Acrobat and Young Harlequin”, and a plethora of Renoirs – so many, you get a sugar high. Every gallery takes your breath away, and for that moment, the art, the masterpiece, is yours.
And then there are the surprises – the art and artists you “meet” for the first time. I fall in love with a Van Gogh country scene I have never seen before.
There is a wonderful painting of Dr. Albert Barnes (1872-1951) by Giorgio de Chirico (1926), which makes you wonder more about who he was to have assembled such an astonishing collection. Dr. Barnes was born and raised in working-class Philadelphia, earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to study chemistry in Germany. After starting his own business and making a fortune in pharmaceuticals, he began collecting art.
“Dr. Barnes believed that art had the power to improve minds and transform lives,” the notes read. “In 1922, he established the Barnes Foundation as a school for learning how to see and appreciate art. He had a gallery built in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, to house his growing collection. He held classes in the gallery so that students could learn directly from the artworks.”
In 2012, the collection was moved to Philadelphia, to a building designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architecture. The collection gallery replicates the original gallery building in Merion.
The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130, 215-278-7000, www.barnesfoundation.org.
From here, we go to a family gathering at the mega-popular Zahav Restaurant (the Uber driver can’t believe we are getting in there since lines are usually around the block), an award-winning restaurant which elevates Israeli cuisine to gourmet status. The small plates menu is designed for diners to sample the variety of cultural influences on Israeli cuisine, from Eastern Europe to North Africa, from Persia to the Mediterranean. “Creamy, nutty hummuses, sizzling skewers of meat grilled over hardwood charcoal, and laffa breadar, the soul of Zahav, baked to order in a wood-fired Taboon.” (237 Saint James Place, 215-625-8800, zahavrestaurant.com).
I spend the next day immersing myself in the sights and sounds of Philadelphia’s holiday activities (see: Holiday Happenings Give Visitors to Philadelphia Even More to Enjoy)
I’m out of The Roost East Market apartment hotel at 8:30 am for a delightful 15 minute walk down Market Street to the Independence Hall Visitor Center to get a timed ticket for a tour of Independence Hall. They start distributing tickets at 8:30 am and I get a ticket for the first tour, 9:20 am (the ticket is free; you can pay $1 for advance reservations online, www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/independencehalltickets.htm). That gives me enough time to watch a short film in the Visitor Center and visit the “Great Essentials” exhibit of original printed copies of the three founding documents signed here at Independence Hall: the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and Constitution. Another interesting artifact: the Syng inkstand, believed to be the silver inkstand in which the 56 Founding Fathers dipped their quills to “mutually pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” in the cause of independence.
We gather in a room and learn that we have come from throughout the United States and the world. “Government as we recognize it, was invented inside Independence Hall,” the Ranger tells us.
The building, in Georgian style architecture which manifested symmetry and order, is on the original site; the foundation was laid in 1732, the year George Washington was born. The founders, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, would have called the building the Pennsylvania State House. All three branches of colonial government were housed here.
“Delegates representing 13 diverse colonies, speaking with a variety of accents, met here, who would have been more familiar with London than Philadelphia. What united them was how disturbed they were how the King and Parliament was treating the colonists. It was the end of the French & Indian War (The Seven Years War), which gave the British victory and control over most of North America, but the Crown imposed new taxes to pay for the war.
We are ushered into a room that would have served as Pennsylvania’s highest court.
“The Magna Carta spelled out the rights of British citizens – no man above law; trial by jury of peers; attorneys would be gathered at one table and colonists could gather and watch the trial. Colonists inherited numerous rights.” But grievances grew – taxation without representation – and the colonists saw their rights being whittled away by the British crown.
We enter the very room where the Continental Congress brought together delegates from 13 free and independent states. “We don’t know for sure but we think they were probably seated by geographic area.” As they gathered to consider their grievances with the crown, shots were fired at Lexington and at Concord, “the shots heard ‘round the world.” The War for Independence officially began.
July 8 1776, the bell in the steeple announced the first reading of Independence. (You can see the Liberty Bell with its famous crack now housed in its own pavilion.)
The visit, coming at such an auspicious time in American history, is like going back to ground zero of the founding:
At the start, colonists were deeply divided. The delegates met for a year before Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “All men are created equal endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
“That was one of the most profound and inspiring statements in human history. That government derives just power from the consent of the governed,” he said.
The War for Independence lasted eight years – France and Spain aided; the Dutch provided financial support. But the War for Independence also was a civil war that divided communities and even families. Ben Franklin’s own son, Sir William, was the Royal Governor of New Jersey, and remained a loyalist. He left America for England. (You can also visit the marvelous Ben Franklin Museum, housed below where his house would have been.)
The powerful words, “All men created equal” presented a paradox, even to the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners from states where the economy derived from slavery. Despite Abigail Adams’ exhortation to husband John Adams to “Remember the ladies,” women’s rights were not even a consideration. “The Declaration is a document of promise,” the Ranger reflects. “Lincoln mentioned the Declaration of Independence in his Gettysburg Address; suffragettes Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Frederick Douglass & Martin Luther King Jr. all drew on the Declaration. We are exhausted from becoming independent, but work had just begun.”
The Articles of Confederation which set up the United States’ first government “was more like treaty of 13 independent countries, with 13 armies, 13 currencies. In less than four months, it was replaced with a central government under the Constitution.”
We see the chair used by George Washington, which has carved into it a rising sun. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton argued and debated over making of three co-equal branches of government; they compromised over representation of large and small states; compromised over the power and function of the presidency.
“George Washington called it the ‘miracle in Philadelphia.’ But they knew they could not predict the future. So the Constitution was designed to change, with provision to amend it.”
Plan your visit, get itinerary suggestions at Independence National Historic Park, 215-965-2305, www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/index.htm.
The tour takes about a half-hour, and I am trying to pack a lot into one day. I decide to forgo a tour of Congress Hall and the Liberty Bell to race over to the National Museum of American Jewish History because I spot a banner showcasing the special exhibit, “Notorious RBG” which is only on view through Jan. 12. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my heroes.
Notorious RBG at NMAJH
“Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) is the first-ever museum retrospective of the Supreme Court Justice-turned-pop-culture-icon. The special exhibition traces a career that traveled from trailblazer to pop-culture icon, exploring the roots of her precedent-setting role on the nation’s highest court, as well as her varied roles as a student, life partner, mother, change-making lawyer, judge, and women’s rights pioneer.
Even though I had seen the excellent “Notorious RBG” documentary and the superb “On the Basis of Sex” film (written by her nephew) which formed the basis of the exhibit (photos, home movies), there was still so much to learn, and the artifacts, and explanations.
The second woman—and the first Jewish woman—to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg acquired the “Notorious RBG” moniker after a series of fiery, record-breaking dissents she gave from the Supreme Court bench in 2013 around the Voting Rights Act. Then-NYU law student Shana Knizhnik was inspired to create the Notorious RBG tumblr, referencing rap star Notorious B.I.G. (In homage to Notorious B.I.G., the exhibition section titles are inspired by his lyrics.)
Based on the New York Times best-selling book of the same name by Knizhnik and Irin Carmon, the visually rich and entertaining exhibition explores RBG’s legacy through archival photographs and documents, historical artifacts, contemporary art, media stations, and gallery interactives. It presents not only the Justice’s writings, opinions, and interviews, but also the whimsical yet powerful world of Notorious RBG memes, fan art, and parody – from a cartoon action figure named Wrath Hover Ginsbot to renderings of the Justice’s likeness on t-shirts, nail decals, and even as tattoos. (Clearly, Justice Ginsburg has always had a sense of humor, which was at the essence of her long-time relationship with her husband, Marty).
NMAJH’s location on Independence Mall provides an ideal backdrop for exploring Justice Ginsburg’s story and the circumstances that brought her to the Court. It places the Justice’s story at the very location where the United States was founded and the US Constitution established the Supreme Court. In fact, just diagonally across from NMAJH is the National Constitution Center, (constitutioncenter.org).
Established in 1976, the National Museum of American Jewish History is the only museum in the nation dedicated exclusively to exploring and interpreting the American Jewish experience, going back 360 years. NMAJH, a Smithsonian Affiliate, was originally founded by the members of historic Congregation Mikveh Israel, which was established in 1740 and known as the “Synagogue of the American Revolution”.
NMAJH , 101 South Independence Mall East at the corner of Fifth and Market Streets, www.NMAJH.org 215.923.3811.
Next: More Philadelphia Treasures: Magic Gardens, Franklin Institute
A Visit Philly Overnight Hotel Package includes overnight free parking and perks, and is bookable at Greater Philadelphia’s official visitor website, visitphilly.com, 800-537-7676 where you can explore things to do, upcoming events, themed itineraries and hotel packages.
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