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Weekly Update – Intrepid expedition around the APS Museum


This week’s Weekly has my story on the APS Museum’s new exhibition program. Below is the copy. More photos at flickr.

APS Museum’s new director is on the money.

Explaining about Dock Creek
Brett Keyser, performance artist, consulting a map during our expedition around Independence National Park.

This wilderness-wary writer signed on to an expedition last month that involved crossing a crevasse, determining the sun’s angles with a sextant, climbing a huge immovable granite cliff wall and finding a long-lost creek—all in the snow and without a coffee break along the way.

Holding the tangled rope
Untangling the tangled rope that kept the group together.

Not quite a Shackelton or Peary experience, but the two-hour trip around Independence National Historical Park organized by the American Philosophical Society Museum (APS) as part of its public programming for the current show “Undaunted,” proved the adage that you don’t have to look far to find amazing things.

Bret Keyser talks about Dock Creek
Brett Keyser talks to us about the long-buried Dock Creek that runs underneath Independence National Historical Park.

The meta-expedition—the crevasse was the dangerous Fifth Street crossing between the museum and the park across the street, the granite cliff was the Second Bank of the U.S.—was led by the hilarious and knowledgeable Brett Keyser, a local performance artist. The project creatively weaves art into science to make science lessons stick to the brain better than boring Discovery Channel specials. Artist Roderick Coover captured the odyssey in an interactive video for viewing at the APS Museum for those who prefer to adventure digitally.

Brett Keyser with Winifred Lutz's Celestial Garden
Keyser, observing Winifred Lutz’s Celestial Garden installation that mirrors the October sky over Philadelphia. We, of course, needed to determine that it wasn’t alien life forms or a dangerous weed infestation.

APS museum director and curator Sue Ann Prince is the brains behind the museum’s wildly imaginative programming. Prince, brought on board in 2001 to reopen a museum that had been shuttered to the public since 1811, is a formally educated (advanced degrees in French lit and art history) jane of many artistic trades. She spearheaded an oral history project for the Smithsonian, served as art critic for the Seattle Times and is a textile artist in her own right. When the APS decided to reopen the museum, they hired Prince “to build a museum from scratch,” she says.

Ruth Patrick
Ruth Patrick, inventor of the diatometer, pictured in a video at the APS Museum

“Undaunted,” the current exhibit at Philosophical Hall on Fifth Street, highlights five local explorers with ties to Philadelphia: surveyor and astronomer David Rittenhouse; naturalist and artist John James Audubon; natural history illustrator and Antarctica explorer Titian Ramsay Peale; physician and explorer Elisha Kent Kane; and freshwater ecologist and inventor Ruth Patrick. The exhibit showcases photos, specimens, books and instruments—a compelling and compact introduction to the our area’s early explorers.

A page from John James Audubon's Birds of North America, on view at the APS Museum.
A page from John James Audubon’s Birds of North America, on view at the APS Museum.

It’s great to see the APS didn’t just dust off and reopen an old institution—the place is vibrant, popping with energy. It’s also refreshing to see artists interspersed in the programming. Art and science have often been bedfellows and here the pairing is just right.

“Undaunted: Five American Explorers, 1760-2007”
Through Dec. 28. APS Museum, Philosophical Hall, 104 S. Fifth St. 215.440.3427.


aps museum, brett keyser