At first glance, there does not appear to be anything special about the thin pieces of parchment trapped between glass panes. The pages are yellowing and spidery, and dark loops snake their way across the margins. When the light is just right, the papers seem almost translucent.
The words upon the papers are opaque and immortal – a draft of The Declaration of Independence, written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand. His writing is precise, tight and elegant, a long-lost art of penmanship.
Visitors to the American Philosophical Society’s home, located just steps away from Independence Hall, mill around The Declaration. Though the exhibit is filled with a lively chatter, everyone seems to fall silent around the draft, speaking in hushed tones out of respect for the monument of history that is within arm’s reach.
Gigi Naglak, the curator of museum education at the American Philosophical Society, has spent years looking at 15th century alchemical texts, important instruments and works of art said she is not immune to the weighty significance of the delicate sheets of paper.
When the draft was first installed in the exhibition, Naglak said she experienced “a moment” with it.
“You just sit there understanding that this was written by Thomas Jefferson and that it’s in his hand, his pen,” Naglak said. “His DNA is on it.”
The APS will hold three exhibits dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, founding father and the third president of the organization. The current exhibition is the first of the series, titled “Jefferson, Philadelphia, and the Founding of the Nation,” and features four drafts of The Declaration of Independence. It will be on display through Dec. 28.
“There’s treasures, and then there’s a handwritten draft of The Declaration,” Naglak said.
Other pieces of APS’ collection that are currently on display include a great deal of other treasures: Jefferson’s writing chair, his certificate of membership to the APS and letters between Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The letters were written by Jefferson, Naglak said, looking for advice from Franklin in regard to The Declaration.
There are prints of Philadelphia maps, too – ones that display the idealized version of the city Jefferson lived and worked in.
“The maps are my favorite,” said Emma Max, the director of education and public programs at the APS. “You can walk around the neighborhood and see what’s changed and what has remained historical. It really lets you see how the past has influenced the present and the culture of the city.”
APS strives to connect the past with the future.
“It’s important for people to know where they come from,” Max said.
She is focused on creating hands-on experiences for those who visit APS – those kinds of moments allow people to “engage with the past,” much like Naglak’s emotional moment with The Declaration of Independence.
Attempting to forge that connection spawned the closing piece of the exhibit: an area where visitors can make tracings of Jefferson’s handwriting. Naglak said that people seemed to take to doing the tracings, feeling the loops and lines of Jefferson’s hand.
Merrill Mason, the director of APS, said that the interactive tracing table was her favorite part of the exhibit.
“It’s been so popular with all ages,” Mason said. “Particularly kids, but everybody loves it. I’m really proud we were able to think up something so inexpensive, but so popular, that lets people connect with Jefferson.”
When the current exhibit closes in December, APS will begin working on the next, to open in April. The upcoming exhibit will be based in Jefferson’s exploration of science.
“Jefferson was an amateur scientist, if you can call him that,” Naglak said. “He collected specimens himself. There’s a fascinating story about the role of this newly formed United States in the broader community of science around the world, especially with Europe at that point in time.”
The exhibit will explore the early collections and contributions to science by early America, particularly those made by Jefferson. However, APS will also include advances made by Lewis and Clark, as Meriwether Lewis himself was brought to the APS to be trained – by Jefferson – before his exploration, Naglak said.
Naglak said she sees a great “intermeshing” of stories, something that could be built upon and continued. The ultimate goal of the APS is to tell those stories, keep them alive, and show people today how that past relates to the future.
Naglak said most people, particularly Americans, are moved by seeing The Declaration of Independence written in Jefferson’s hand, or letters by Benjamin Franklin.
“Most of the time, when you’re looking at objects that come from our history, they’re virtual images, blown up on a poster or on TV,” Mason said. “But when you come see the real document, you get that intimate feeling. Even if it’s in a glass case, it’s the real story.”
Victoria Mier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org