Franklin & Jefferson and Charles & Ray Posted August 2, 2016 by Daniel Ostroff

Forty years ago this year, the Eames exhibition The World of Franklin and Jefferson began its tour of American museums.

ES_WorldFranklinJeffersoCroppedThe exhibition spanned 120 years of American history (1706-1826), from the American Colonial experience and its European heritage, to the point when the young Nation was able to make its great move westward. It follows the careers of Franklin and Jefferson through the important times during the formulation of the Declaration of Independence, throughout the Revolutionary War, and during the early stages of the Constitutional government.

The Franklin/Jefferson exhibition was designed for the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (ARBA) by the Office of Charles and Ray Eames in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through a grant from the IBM Corporation. It was managed and operated abroad by the U.S. Information Agency.

The World of Franklin and Jefferson premier presentation took place in Paris on January 10, 1975. The opening in Paris was an immediate success, both in terms of attendance and press reaction. Hailed by diverse newspapers and magazines such as Le Monde, Le Figaro and L’Express, it was also praised in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Star News (now called The Washington Star) and a variety of other newspapers in across the country.

Flora Lewis’s review in The New York Times reviewed the exhibition at its Paris premier:

Streamers, outlined in red, white and blue, inscribed with remarks by Franklin and Jefferson, span the central hall. 

‘If the present Congress errs too much in talking, how can it be otherwise, in a body to which the people send one hundred fifty lawyers whose trade it is to question everything and to yield nothing? That one hundred fifty lawyers should do business together ought not to be expected,’ Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying.

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Instead of formal memorabilia, pylons with paintings, photographs and texts have been placed throughout the rooms. One wall contains portraits of anonymous people by anonymous painters of the Revolutionary period. They do not look like French aristocrats, but neither are they rough frontiersmen. A small flatbed printing press made for Franklin in Paris, its hardwood bright and shining, and is still in working order and gives substance to another bannered quote by Jefferson: ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers, or newspapers without a Government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.’

The continent where the American revolutionaries established a new nation is depicted. There is a collection of American Indian artifacts, including a Crow warrior’s shield…The show by Mr. and Mrs. Eames sets an un-self-conscious, warm tone for the approach to the Bicentennial in the year after Watergate—’human-scale’ in Mr. Eames’s words.

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After Paris, the exhibition opened in Warsaw, where it was on view at the National Museum until July 9, 1975. The show drew a record number of daily visitors. At that time, the American Embassy in Warsaw said The World of Franklin & Jefferson was the most successful and impressive show that the United States had ever mounted in Poland.

A weekly publication called Kultura reported:

Together, Franklin and Jefferson understood very well the ideas of European enlightenment and they applied a practical knowledge of these ideas towards the growth of the United States. The authors of the exhibit, Charles and Ray Eames, have brought together a collection of original materials, reproductions, photographs, and texts that excellently illuminate the life and intellectual creativity of these men and of America in the 18th and 19th centuries, their revolt against a reactionary Europe, and their unity in bringing forward new ideals in politics and Science.

The World of Franklin & Jefferson opened at the British Museum on September 15, 1975. The publication Times of London wrote:

Maxims and aphorisms float overhead on red, white and blue banners; elsewhere we see all manner of things, from a stuffed bison to paintings of the West by George Catlin, to fossil bones which Jefferson sent to France to show how big American animals were, silver tankards by Paul Revere, Franklin’s glass harmonica and Jefferson’s superbly crafted wooden plough blades, an important technical innovation, and various undeniably impressive yet amiable eighteenth-century experimental electrical apparatus. It does all strike a spark, in an energetic attempt to suggest aspects of American political, practical and social innovation as part of the European Enlightenment.

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In March 1976, the show began its American tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, eventually traveling to The Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1977, The World of Franklin & Jefferson traveled to Mexico City, Mexico, where it was on view at the National Museum of Anthropology. Once the tour ended, Charles explained the concept of the show to Owen Gingerich in an interview published in American Scholar magazine:

We advertised the exhibition not as a show for historians (even though we owed very much to the historians) but as a citizens’ exhibition. Actually it was not an art exhibition, but more like a colored walk-through tabloid. We tried to make this purpose clear. [In the 1970s, newspaper tabloids with big headlines and many photographs were the most popular form of news delivery.]

We used the captions [the “maxims and aphorisms”]  to deal with problems and circumstances; that’s why there were so many words. Had we been dealing with accomplishments, we could have done it in very few words. However, it is true that we set out originally to be quite critical and hard about the main characters, but as we went on, we were so impressed by how much someone like James Madison was able to pull off time and again that we came out pretty much all admiration. . . . It was an architectural arrangement of words and photographs, with pockets of real things from the eighteenth century, chosen to reinforce the story. The entire Eames-Gingerich interview can be found in the book An Eames Anthology.

Charles and Ray always said, “Never delegate understanding,” which meant one should understand all aspects of a concept, idea, or project. The Eames Office created the look of the Franklin/Jefferson exhibition; but more importantly, they deeply researched their subjects. The extent to which they came to know their subject matter is evident in this 1975 NBC News recording of Charles giving a journalist a tour of the exhibition at the British Museum. This is from NBC’s website:

Garrick Utley, NBC News, speaks with Charles Eames, the organizer of the exhibits dedicated to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Eames explains that both Franklin and Jefferson were well-rounded individuals who functioned well at all levels. An exhibit on the life of Benjamin Franklin is seen, as are tools from the American colonial period. Early American documents, such as the treaty, which ended the Revolutionary War, are seen. Mr. Eames says he has enjoyed presenting the exhibit because people now have a chance to relive the lives of men who were instrumental in shaping modern day America.

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