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Ben Franklin's pennies meet the 21st century with a TechniCulture residency

Pennies on Ben Franklin's grave

When it comes to funding, Christ Church Preservation Trust has a unique problem. According to Executive Director Barbara Hogue, about a million people visit Ben Franklin's grave every year. Somewhere in the early-to-mid 20th century, it became customary to toss a penny onto the Founding Father’s resting place in honor of Franklin' adage, "a penny saved is a penny earned." The custom isn’t limited to Americans -- last year the Trust counted currency from 30 different countries on the grave.

Currently, the coins the Trust collects amount to about $3,500 per year -- not an insignificant source of revenue when preservation and maintenance on the two-acre historic Christ Church Burial Ground (founded in 1723 at Fifth and Arch Streets) costs $50,000 annually. The trouble is that all those donated coins are damaging the limestone of Franklin’s grave, eroding the very landmark visitors are trying to honor.

In June, the Trust received $38,000 in the form of a Keystone Heritage Grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the conservation of Franklin’s grave. They worked with the firm Materials Conservation to develop the grant. Conservators insisted that the problems went beyond water-induced deterioration of the grave's limestone tablet and marble base.

The Trust hopes to solve the issue without losing its income stream or halting a beloved custom. This summer, Flying Kite took a look at the call for the Cultural Alliance’s inaugural TechniCulture Innovation Residency Award program applications, and this month, three winners were announced, including Christ Church Preservation Trust.

"What we really need to do is get people to stop throwing pennies on his grave, because it’s really hurting the limestone," insists Hogue. That’s where the TechniCulture application came in. "How can we encourage people to give a penny, or encourage the social custom, without damaging the grave?"

Enter Davis Shaver, the digital products and solutions lead for Philadelphia Media Network. For three months starting this October, Shaver will partner with the Trust to develop ideas for capturing this revenue stream for the essential historic site -- also boasting the graves of luminaries like Benjamin Rush, five other Signers besides Franklin, and many Revolutionary War heroes -- without cutting out the fun of honoring Ben Franklin with a small on-site donation.

"Maybe it’s an app, maybe it’s a texting opportunity," she says of the possibilities of the residency. It could be “some really simple way for people to donate small amounts of money" that could develop into a fun campaign to engage graveyard visitors, and keep the grounds safe and accessible to the public.

Early next year, all three winners of the TechniCulture Innovation Residency will present the findings of their residencies, and the Cultural Alliance will further reward one of them with funds toward implementation of the ideas.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Barbara Hogue, Christ Church Preservation Trust

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