Short Shrift for the Long Room at Independence Hall

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The Long Room, Second Floor at Independence Hall, January 8, 1924. Warren A. McCullough, Photographer.

Charles Willson Peale knew an opportunity when he saw it. Two centuries later, what do we see?

In 1802, the 100-foot “Long Room” at the State House (aka Independence Hall) became available when the Pennsylvania’s legislature left for Lancaster. The acquisitive and talented Charles Willson Peale had installed his museum (and his family) in the adjacent Philosophical Hall eight years before. Now, his expanded collections had that space bursting at the seams. The spacious Long Room beckoned. Peale couldn’t imagine a better place for the United States to open its first “great national museum.”

Peale negotiated a deal and soon filled the State House with everything American, and then some. Opposite the windows in the Long Room, he stacked four rows of cases with more than 700 American birds. Peale and his artist sons painted the inside of each case with backgrounds to replicate their natural habitats and arranged them according to the Linnaean system. Above, Peale installed two rows of a newer, man-made order: America’s “Illustrious Personages painted from life” by Peale and son Rembrandt. The Peales did it all: art, taxidermy, presentation and interpretation.

Both “the unwise and the learned” got their money’s worth here. For the twenty-five cent admission fee visitors gained access to the Long Room, the Marine Room and the Quadruped Room, which displayed 90 mammals, including a stuffed grizzly bear and buffalo. To see Peale’s pièce de résistance, his mastodon, they’d pay an additional fifty cents. Peale excavated and presented the “Great American Incognitum” specifically to counter Old World claims that America didn’t have as robust a natural history as did Europe. He proved the Europeans wrong presenting a twelve-by-nineteen-foot mastodon—a fossilized skeleton large enough to serve a banquet underneath its rib cage.

Opposite the wall of birds and Founding Fathers were thousands of fossils, shells, rocks, minerals and insects. (See Titian Ramsay Peale’s watercolor from 1822.) For exhibits too small to see with the naked eye, the museum offered microscopes. To set the mood for enlightenment it provided live organ music. Visitors left with souvenir silhouettes cut by Moses Williams, Peale’s former slave. For years, Williams operated the newly-invented physiognotrace in the Long Room, cutting miniature profiles for anyone who wanted them. In 1803 alone, Peale claimed Williams made 8,800 of them.

Not everyone thought this the highest and best use of a place increasingly considered a “sacred shrine.” Social reformer Fanny Wright “was a little offended to find stuffed birds and beasts, and mammoth skeletons filling the place of senators and sages.” She suggested something “in better taste…a library, instead of a museum of natural curiosities, or a mausoleum of dead monsters.”

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Charles Willson Peale, “The Artist in His Museum,” 1822.

Peale’s famous painting from 1822, The Artist in His Museum, (illustrated and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts here), confidently responded to the naysayers, which included members of Congress who failed to see it for what it was: a serious and creative venture, a unique and uniquely American institution. Repeatedly, Peale’s pleas for support fell on deaf ears.

The museum remained open after Peale’s death in 1827, but the writing was on the wall: it would eventually fail. Peale’s collections would be dismantled and disbanded. The building, as Charlene Mires put it, would soon become “a workshop of memory for elite Philadelphians, who stripped away most material reminders of the building’s nineteenth-century history.”

Today, what Peale imagined and accomplished for his time in the Long Room is largely forgotten. And his success begs the question: Can a place be so overwhelmed by a rich but narrow interpretation of the past that it forever loses its ability to connect with the present? Is there any hope for new life in the Long Room? Peale saw its potential and acted on it. In the 19th-century, he created a patriotic place, but one infused with cultural value and educational, social and practical significance.

What can we imagine for the Long Room in the 21st century? Surely there’s untapped value for us, too, in this rich and resonant place.

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