It's tempting to curl up with a good book from the Rosenbach Museum & Library's distinguished collection, like two 15th-century manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or a first edition of Don Quixote, but it could normally get you in serious trouble. Fortunately for fans of the landmark's don't-touch antiquarian arsenal, the Rosenbach has begun offering special "hands-on tours," including ones focused on Philadelphia's rich cultural history in the arts and crafts, entitled Made in Philadelphia and Philadelphia Artists.
"The tours are very interactive," says Katherine Haas, museum curatorial assistant and tour guide. During Made in Philadelphia (Feb. 6) groups of no more than eight are invited to explore the decorative arts in Philly dating between 1750 and 1850, by handling and looking closely at the craftsmanship of furniture and tableware. Haas also provides histories and surprising anecdotes about each known artisan and the impact the works have had on the local community and world.
"It gives people the opportunity to focus on a subset of our collection and really go in-depth for a better understanding of how each piece was made," says Haas. "We discuss how these pieces travel through time and what has changed."
Highlights of the Rosenbach's furniture and silver collection include a Philadelphia high chest on legs, as well as locally made chairs, tankards, a neoclassical mustard pot and silver cups and saucers. "We usually pass around the drawers and look at the construction," says Haas, who admits that even the finest carpentry from the Revolutionary period can feature very cheap pine insides and highly decorative outsides because most of the crafts were for show, displayed by wealthy families in the city. A few of the items were passed down from Philadelphia's esteemed Levy and Gratz families to the Rosenbach over almost two centuries.
Haas discusses not only Philadelphia creative tradition, but also its impact on social history, including the relationship between arts and crafts and slavery. "Mahogany was linked to the slave trade," she says, noting that Quaker furniture makers, though opposed to slavery, often imported the wood from the West Indies where it was harvested by slaves. "There's also a Scots-Irish immigrant craftsmanship tradition in Philadelphia," says Hass. "Philly was the largest port of entry for the Scots-Irish at the end of the 18th century."
The museum also explores the city's fine art history with Philadelphia Artists (March 4), a tour focused on the works of local painter Thomas Sully and the Peale family, including paintings, miniatures, silhouettes and engravings. "We do comparison work," says Haas, contrasting stylistic differences between painters and discussing the relationship between a preliminary sketch and a finished portrait.
"The Peale family is especially fun," says Haas, "because they're so ingrained in Philadelphia's artistic culture." In fact, local patriarch Charles Willson Peale was so enamored by classical painters that he named each of his children after them. Titian, who became an eminent natural historian, was the youngest (a few of his rare illustrations are at the Academy of Natural Sciences). "I think it would be awful if you were named Titian Peale," says Haas, "and you couldn't draw."
Rosenbach Museum & Library | Made in Philadelphia (Fri, Feb. 6) and Philadelphia Artists (Wed, March 4), 3-4 p.m., free with museum admission of $10, reservations required, 2008-2010 Delancey Place, 215-732-1600, rosenbach.org