Mad About Museums

A Quick Tour Highlights Some Of Philadelphia's Fun Yet Informative Cultural Attractions

October 04, 2009|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Philadelphia's so-called Museum Mile lives up to its name and then some.

Four museums and a plethora of cultural institutions line the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a grand avenue that beckons visitors and offers what is just the beginning of the city's vast and varied cultural attractions.

For art connoisseurs, history buffs or those just looking for fun things to touch, Philadelphia's museums won't disappoint. On a recent visit, I took a whirlwind trip to four museums across town, accompanied by an old college chum who lives there and graciously played de facto tour guide of her hometown.

Ours was a breezy adventure that involved walking, multiple modes of transportation, plus stops for Philly's legendary cheese steaks along the way. Meanwhile, we managed to squeeze a week's worth of culture into a single Saturday afternoon.

We met at noon in the elegant lobby of my hotel, the Radisson Plaza-Warwick, a historic landmark in the upscale Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. The location puts guests smack in the middle of Center City downtown, close to an array of dining, retail and sightseeing options.

Philadelphia is a walkable city, and the public transportation seems reliable. At my friend's suggestion, we decided to stroll part of the way, catch the bus or subway when convenient and to use her car (parked on a lot, initially) for any sites that were off the beaten pedestrian path.

With the sun shining, we set out on foot toward our first museum, the National Constitution Center.

We got as far as City Hall, before hopping aboard a bus that put us within a block of the sprawling 160,000-square-foot historical center. The museum, not far from other famous sites such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, pays homage to the U.S. Constitution and the city's roots as the birthplace of democracy.

This place is a history lover's dream, incorporating film, photos, a glass-enclosed theater-in-the-round, interactive and multimedia displays, and more.

Yet contemporary exhibits shine here, too: This weekend, the international traveling exhibition, "Diana: A Celebration" arrives, offering an intimate look at the life and times of the iconic Princess of Wales.

Stateside for the first time since 2007, and making its East Coast debut, the 10,000-square-foot assemblage explores Diana's childhood, royal nuptials to Prince Charles, their two sons and her global humanitarian missions. Nine galleries showcase some 150 artifacts, from Di's royal wedding gown and diamond tiara to the handwritten lyrics of "Candle in the Wind," sung by friend Elton John at her funeral.

We thoroughly enjoyed the experience here, but after a quick peek into the gift shop (think T-shirts, books, Obama inaugural memorabilia, etc.), it was time to move on to the second museum on our list.

Fortunately, the African American Museum in Philadelphia is on the same street as the Constitution Center, about two blocks away. Unfortunately, the day we stopped by, the museum was closed.

However, the museum is riding high after unveiling a major, new core exhibition, "Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776-1876." The state-of-the-art exhibit melds technology, artifacts and graphics, recounting the stories and contributions of Philadelphians of African descent. The paradox between slavery and freedom was especially evident here, given that Philadelphia had one of the largest populations of free blacks during the time period.

The exhibit also features a gallery showcasing 18th-century black trailblazers, a children's corner and art - including what's been hailed as a "stunning conception" of artist John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence" painting showing the people who were left out.

I promised myself I would return when I had more time. Next, we regrouped and made our way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the largest in the country. The mammoth museum is situated along the aforementioned Benjamin Franklin Parkway and is also well-known to cinema buffs as the site where Sylvester Stallone jogs up the steps in the classic movie "Rocky."

There are multiple exhibitions on tap here, ranging from "Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera," to a retrospective of avant-garde artist Arshile Gorky, early Islamic calligraphy and more.

By the time we finished, the day was slowly slipping away. We had to hustle if we were going to make our fourth venue, the Please Touch Museum, about a five-minute drive away, in Fairmount Park.

Launched in 1976, Please Touch moved last year to Memorial Hall, a National Historic Landmark built in 1876 for America's Centennial Exhibition. Its stunning exterior, candy-colored interior and child-friendly exhibits conjure Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, mixed with a touch of Disney World.

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