Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Hey look kids! There's Big Ben, and there's Parliament."

LIKE ANY GOOD PHILADELPHIAN, when visitors arrive in town, I take them to see the Liberty Bell. As far as Philadelphia icons go, the bell is right up there with Geno's and the Rocky steps (otherwise known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Beyond those sites, I'm hard-pressed to think of places to show out-of-towners, especially when they only have a few hours here.

Today, I slowed down a bit and watched people's reactions to the bell and surrounding exhibits. Most people walked right past the displays in the foyer leading to the bell. The 4-foot wide black and white photographs and other historical reproductions were largely ignored by the packs of children. A few French-speaking tourists watched a video about freedom and the bell (the park ranger generously offered to show the Japanese-language version of the film but my Japanese friends declined). I noticed that there was nothing interactive in the facility.

The bell itself was at the center of a 360-degree photo op. There were people everywhere - not facing the bell - having their picture taken. The last time I visited the bell (when other visitors were here), there was a park ranger throwing out bell facts and stories. Maybe he was off today.

I'm not sure there was an appreciation for the symbolism of the bell by many of those in attendance. They sure did seem happy though - I bet they tell all of their friends they saw the bell.

At the Art Museum, the guard at the gate welcomed us and told us that photography is fine as long as we don't use the flash. Inside, few people took pictures. I noticed that there were numerous fragile pieces that could be negatively affected by a sudden burst of light (like the skirt on the Degas' statue, left). Guards in every hall kept a close eye on the visitors - a luxury not every semi-public institution could afford.

The guards didn't stop me from getting very close to the paintings, which is something I love to do. I appreciate art on several levels - the superficial, the process itself, and as a piece of history. Paintings, like fiction, are not always realistic but they can represent the mindset of an era (just as fiction can). I love seeing the evolution of styles. Getting inches away from this Pissarro landscape (right) shows me how he used texture in his work.

Like many of the museum visitors, we spent the bulk of our time with the impressionists. My guests didn't get very excited about anything else in the building.

All in all, my day of touring made me wonder whether marketing history and museums to out-of-towners is a worthwhile effort. There seemed to be a sense of obligation - I'm in Philly, I need to see the bell, etc. Instead of actually experiencing the city, people see the stuff they're supposed to see. I'm not sure what the alternative would be - how do you provide random visitors authentic Philly experiences?

I drew the line at Geno's. I feared they might not serve my foreign friends.

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