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The American Philosophical Society Museum & Philadelphia History

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What’s ‘Philosophical’ about this Philadelphia Museum?

Discover the rare, the curious, and the authentic. Learn about American history and innovation. Make connections between art and science. At the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia, you will see exhibitions featuring treasures from the Society’s collections— Thomas Jefferson’s hand-written draft of the Declaration of Independence, a notebook from Lewis and Clark’s Western exploration, a rare 18th century astronomical clock, or a suite of exquisite botanical drawings by William Bartram. With each exhibition, you can also enjoy imaginative programs that interpret the historical themes and objects on view and connect them to relevant issues in the world today.

Philadelphia history shows that in 1743, when Benjamin Franklin and his friends decided to establish the American Philosophical Society (APS), they studied the natural world and called themselves natural philosophers. Now we’d call them scientists. But the word “philosophical” stuck.

For more than 270 years the APS in Philadelphia has gathered and preserved a rich collection that traces American & Philadelphia history and science from the Founding Fathers to the computer age. It includes scientific specimens and instruments, patent models, portraits, maps, art works, rare books, and over thirteen million manuscripts.

The Museum resides in Philosophical Hall, completed in 1789. Now a National Historic Landmark, it was once home to Charles Wilson Peale’s famed natural history and portrait museum–the first successful museum in the nation.

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Jefferson’s Legacy: Three Exhibitions

April 2014 – December 2016

Thomas Jefferson was president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1814—before, during, and after he was President of the United States—and the Society was one of Jefferson’s primary ties to Philadelphia even after he left for Washington. As the site of Charles Wilson Peale’s famed natural history museum, for which Jefferson served as chairman of the first Board of Visitors, the American Philosophical Society Museum provides an ideal venue for a series of exhibitions about Jefferson. This tripartite exhibition series—exploring Jefferson as a statesman, as a promoter of science and exploration, and as a student of Native America and indigenous languages—will not only add to our historical understanding of Jefferson’s accomplishments but will also demonstrate how his multifaceted legacy continues to be relevant today.

thomas jefferson in philadelphiaThomas Jefferson had a passion for knowledge that encompassed theoretical and applied sciences as well as statesmanship. His broad-ranging endeavors in fields ranging from paleontology to botany to climate change—all of which will be featured in the show—were often linked to Philadelphia’s intellectual resources. It was at Philosophical Hall that Jefferson gave a talk inaugurating American paleontology. When he obtained mastodon fossils while in the White House, he sent many of them for safekeeping to the APS.

As President, Jefferson advocated for westward exploration, commissioning Lewis and Clark’s successful 1804 expedition. The APS was a key ally of the Corps of Discovery and their investigation of the territory gained through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Prior to the trip, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to study with five Philadelphians, all APS members. This government-sponsored journey aptly demonstrates the inextricable links between natural philosophy (science) and political ambition in Jefferson’s time.

Jefferson had an abiding interest in Native American culture and language, while, at the same time, supporting national policies that ultimately threatened the survival of indigenous peoples. Jefferson believed that study of indigenous languages would reveal historical connections among Native American tribes, and he commissioned the collection of Native American vocabularies, many of which are housed in the APS library. In addition to these vocabularies, the exhibition will include Native American artifacts sent to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark.

APS museum in philadelphiaToday, the APS Library continues to expand upon Jefferson’s legacy of research into Native American linguistics and history by digitizing wire, wax cylinder, and fragile reel-to-reel audio recordings. The exhibition will juxtapose Jefferson’s 18th-century written vocabularies with these 21st-century, newly digitized recordings of songs, stories, and conversations with tribal elders. The APS actively supports research in Native American linguistics and history in an effort to preserve and sustain this vital heritage.

Next time you come to Philadelphia, the APS Museum is a “Do Not Miss” stop!

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The American Philosophical Society Museum & Philadelphia History

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