"Undaunted: Five American Explorers'

4 minute read
672 rittenhouse
Five who pushed the envelope


Curating is a big job. Design is another. "Undaunted," curator Sue Ann Prince’s choice show at Philosophical Hall about five explorers, deserves our attention. But it also deserves more imaginative design and flow. Geography is reverie and exploration conjures space; this exhibit is cluttered. But anyone interested in David Rittenhouse, who was far more than a clockmaker, or Ruth Patrick, the mother of biodiversity, should get to Independence Park.

Five bold individuals share quarters the size of a row house living room; any one of them merits a room of his own. Consider Elisha Kent Kane, for instance. This Philadelphian’s two Arctic voyages mapped Greenland, discovered the Humboldt Glacier, and found the grave of Sir John Franklin, the discoverer of the Northwest Passage, the explorer for whom all mid-19th-Century seafarers were searching. This Kane was one dashing fellow: Gifted with both brush and pen, he sketched the Inuit and the bear on his icy voyages and wrote bestsellers that he illustrated himself. When Kane died at 37 in 1857 his body was shipped from Cuba to New Orleans to Independence Hall. The entire nation mourned.

Sigourney Weaver without the lipstick

Ruth Patrick turns 100 soon. She discovered the diatom, the single-cell alga that tells the health of fresh and marine waters. When she started working at the Academy of Natural Sciences here, lipstick wasn’t even allowed her in the lab. Seen in her pith helmet in many stages of womanhood, she shows a remarkable resemblance to Sigourney Weaver. Her exhibit is the finest. It includes a video interview of fairly recent vintage, detailed maps and photographs of the Conestoga River Basin and other freshwater tables for which Patrick has done enormous work. Diatoms under the microscope are squiggly as worms, varied as snowflakes, and a display case contains methods she jury-rigged for collecting them including a toilet-flush system.

Next to Patrick’s exhibit is Titian Ramsey Peale’s. This zoologist was born in Philosophical Hall, where his father Charles Willson Peale taught him painting and how to stuff birds. Titian’s findings on many Pacific expeditions launched the Smithsonian collection. Spears and nose rings from Samoa, Titian’s sketches and letters to his brother Franklin do not sugarcoat life on board ship in the 1850s and ’60s.

Why David Rittenhouse fainted

I confess myself partial to the theodolites, compasses, chains and brown-ink projections belonging to the china-blue-eyed David Rittenhouse, whose renown as astronomer and surveyor derives from his observations on the 1769 Transit of Venus. This despite the fact that he fainted at its onset— not because, as Benjamin Rush wrote, he was in a fit of ecstasy, but because he had been ill weeks before. Rittenhouse was in an agony of doubt that his projections, earlier than other observers’, were accurate. They were.

John James Audubon’s engravings, The Birds of America in the rare elephant folio, occupy the center of this show. There are only 120 elephant folios extant. This one belongs to the American Philosophical Society, which hasn’t exhibited it before. Every month until the exhibit closes, another page will be turned so that visitors will see all the feathered creatures. Audubon’s letters to his wife Lucy are revealing, his script a looser, messier scrawl to her than to others, and his sarcasm about Florida is fascinating: He didn’t much care for the state about which William Bartram waxed lyrical. It may be heresy to say it, but because of the crowded layout and mapping theme of this show, I think Audubon belongs elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in the foyer…

Undaunted is accompanied by "Unexpected," an exhibit of contemporary artists on site. Winifred Lutz’s “Mason-Dixon Lines: Past to Present” are three parallel bands that Lutz hand-painted. The first replicates Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason’s 1768 western boundary for Pennsylvania and Maryland. The middle band is a U.S. Geological topographical map of the hills and valleys, exact geography for the time; the third band is a contemporary road map. Lutz’s work is lovely, but the bands wrapping around the ceiling are slim, and it’s difficult to enjoy the details of her handiwork without the eight-times magnification binoculars meant to accompany the piece. (They are on order after someone stole them.) The original Mason-Dixon engraving is in the Rittenhouse exhibit; David Rittenhouse surveyed the southwest boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland in 1784.

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