In a sweeping renovation of the Franklin Institute’s train room, the science center’s much-loved steam locomotive will perch on tracks supported by steel and concrete railroad-bridge-like structures newly revealed to visitors in an airy two-level space.
Joining the Baldwin 60000, which has been in residence at the institute since the 1930s, will be a rotating display of historic artifacts from the Franklin’s collection that have often been tucked away in storage, out of public view.
Dates for construction and completion of the new setting for the train and artifacts gallery have not been set, but opening is expected by 2024, says Franklin Institute president and CEO Larry Dubinski.
The new space will be called the Treasures of the Franklin Institute gallery.
“One of the great things about a science center like ours is, with the promise of science and technology it is always important to look back on the past to see what we’ve learned and where it has taken us,” Dubinski said.
The cost of the project is being fully covered by a family that has a long history with both the institute and the train: the Hamiltons. The $6 million gift comes by way of the Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, a new philanthropy established with proceeds from the estate of the late Dorrance “Dodo” Hill Hamilton, said her son S. Matthews “Matt” V. Hamilton Jr.
It was his grandfather, Samuel M. Vauclain, president of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, who donated the 60000 to the institute in 1933. To create the new setting, the 350-ton locomotive will actually not budge from its current spot. Rather, much of the slab floor and infill beneath it will be removed to expose the original steel-and-concrete supports that have long held it up.
“We will cut into the floor to make a two-floor gallery,” said Dubinski, adding that in a sense the plan was back to the future. “Originally it was built so you could experience the engineering in the way the supports hold the train up.”
Visitors to the gallery will see artifact-filled vitrines atop storage stacks, and will be able to look down to see railroad-bridge-like structures currently visible to office workers one level below. “The whole goal is to create this architecturally stimulating area that solves this issues of curatorial storage and exhibition,” Dubinski said.
The Baldwin 60000, manufactured in Eddystone, Pa., in 1926, was experimental, and the model was never built again. Generations of museum visitors remember it moving back and forth a few feet, though it doesn’t anymore, and won’t in its new setting. People will be able to board it, though.
“It has not moved in over five years,” said Dubinski. “The reality is, in the world we live today, a five-foot move of a train is not something that provides the ultimate customer-service experience. We don’t view that as additive.”
(Any number of sentimental former 5-year-olds might disagree.)
As for other historic objects, the Franklin Institute owns about 3,000 items and 40,000 documents, said Dubinski — the vast majority out of view.
“We have a few objects out on the floor, but really have not incorporated many of these into our everyday exhibitions,” he said. Many artifacts represent cutting-edge technology of the day: a substantial collection of Wright Brothers materials, Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica, a Thomas Edison light bulb, early film projection equipment, and on and on.
The institute’s assistant director of collections and curatorial, Susannah Carroll, will work with other staff to figure out what gets rotated in and out, Dubinski said. Additional digital components will allow visitors to “dig into things” not out on display, he said.
The new space, to be designed by architecture firm SmithGroup in Washington, is the first in a number of renovations planned for the museum in coming years. The price tag for the entire series of projects has not been set, though Dubinski said the campaign goal to pay for it all would be the “most ambitious number the institute has ever had.”
The support from the Hamiltons represents the continuation of a philanthropic presence in the area by “Dodo” Hamilton, who died in 2017 and was one of the region’s most visible donors to arts, education, horticulture and health-care causes.
“When Mom passed, her desire was for her wealth to create another family trust to benefit mainly children and people in the Philadelphia area,” said Matt Hamilton. About 75 percent of the trust’s gifts go toward charities in the Philadelphia area and Camden, he said, with the remaining 25 percent given at the discretion of the trustees, most of whom are Hamilton family members.
“She loved Philadelphia even though she grew up in New York, and loved the idea of family and wanted to give underserved children and individuals a leg up to better themselves,” he said.
The pledge to the Franklin Institute, which will be paid out over a number of years, is the trust’s largest commitment this year. The trust will exist in perpetuity, and this year expects to pay out a total of $4.2 million to $4.5 million, a trust official said.
Matt Hamilton said that when he was on the board of the Franklin Institute, “we always tried to show the public what we had in our archives, which are some pretty great objects, innovative things we take for granted now, and there was no way to display them correctly.”