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Daytripper: Franklin Institute
03/01/2005 - By Jeffrey Moser

The Franklin Institute, an award-winning museum considered a leader in "fostering a scientific and technically literate society", is a must-visit destination that is close to home.

    "The doors of wisdom are never shut." -Benjamin Franklin.

    Benjamin Franklin is one of Philadelphia's most revered hometown heroes.  Although he was born in Boston, it was Philadelphia where he made his home and is buried today.  In his day Franklin was the embodiment of the 18th century Renaissance man; he was a printer, writer, scientist, inventor, civic leader, revolutionary, and diplomat.  He was critical in establishing the first public university, library, and hospital.  "Old Ben" also founded America's first fire insurance company, established groundbreaking international treaties, and fought for the abolition of slavery almost 100 years before the Civil War.  He's remembered as one of  America's forefathers and is forever honored with the establishment of The Franklin Institute. 

    The Franklin Institute first opened in 1824 in Independence Hall as an homage to Franklin and his virtuosity.  It remained there until 1934, when the Institute's new headquarters, complete with the Fels Planetarium, was completed at 222 North 20th Street.  It was the second planetarium ever built in America.

    In 1990, the IMAX Theater and the Mandell Center were added.  As in the museum's early days its intention of hands-on learning for visitors was a large part of its attraction as it remains today.  This may be the reason why the Franklin Institute is Pennsylvania's most visited museum.  One of the most famous exhibits at the museum is known at the Giant Heart.  Originally called the Engline of Life when it premiered in 1954, the walkthrough heart is two stories high which would be the accurate size organ for a 220-foot tall person! It quickly became an icon in the city of Philadelphia.  The exhibit recently reopened after undergoing major renovations and has gained a new moniker, The Giant Heart: A Healthy Interactive Experience.  It has now doubled in size to a total 5,000 square feet, which encapsulates the heart with ahost of interactive activities and interesting information.  A huge electrocardiogram (EKG) cuts through the space.  Four main topic areas are covered:  Heart Anatomy and Physiology, Health and Wellness Blood, Diagnostics and Treatment.  The heart spiral sculpture illustrates how a heart functions in other species and shows the different sizes that they have.  Visitors can choose to watch a special-effect enhanced open heart surgical procedure or check out the cartoon on the body's vascular system.  Young kids will love the crawl through the arteries while parents can take their own EKG readings. 

    Aeronautics are a big draw for the museum.  The Franklin Air Show covers the spectrum of manned flight.  The centerpiece of this exhibit is the 1911 Wright Model B Flyer.   It was recently restored to its original, pristine condition by vintage aircraft masters Aeroplane works.  Looking at this archaic machine, it's hard to fathom just how far technology has come in relation to ruling the skies.  But with over 20 interactive venues- including a pilot training area, and aircraft hangar, and a midway- visitors are captivated by the majesty and science of aviation.

    Want to grab the controls of a plane in flight?  A T-33 jet trainer allows you to see how to handle a real jet; it's the same flight simulator that has trained thousands of real pilots.  So try a lazy-eight or a 360-roll with no fear of having to eject.  Another exhibit transports you to an air show where planes roar overhead in the blue sky.  Other interactives show the cockpit controls of commercial planes and explain the history of flight.

   Is earth-bound flight not out of this world enough for you?  Blast off through the stratosphere (at Space Command).  Flanked by an eight-foot-tall telescope and space suit, the mission of Space Command is to help visitors understand the exciting and important role of space exploration.  Buckle up and embark on the orbiting research station.  Learn about the innovative ways that electricity is used in outer space.  Or peer through the Galact-o-scope, the "window" that looks out of the simulated space station, and watch astronauts at work as planets pass you by while you speed through space.

    Space Command displays some very cool equipment developed for use in outer space.  And the hands-on exhibits just keep coming.  Use the satellite tracking device and locate your house.  And don't forget about the weather station, one of Benjamin Franklin's favorites.

    There are many other exhibits located in the Science Center.  The Sports Challenge demonstrates in many fun ways how, by understanding the principles of science, you can be a better athlete.  From practicing your short game on the putting green and virtual surfing to figure skating, drag racing, basketball, and many other sports, you'll need some Gatorade when you're finished.  A massive locomotive roars to life in the Train Factory, where all types of interactive activities let you be the engineers.  There is also a Kids' Science Center and a memorial to Ben Franklin.  And all of these (activities) are just in the Science Center wing!  The Mandell Center is open for summer with mostly outdoor activities that stress hands-on learning.

    The Tuttleman IMAX Threater's 79-foot domed screen presents a great schedule of education-based cinema.  Now playing through june 18 are Mystery of the Nile, the story of the epic 3,250 mile journey from source to sea on Africa's Nile River and Aliens of the Deep, where Academy-award winning director James Cameron takes us to the darkest depths of the ocean to encounter the bizarre creatures that live there.  Opening June 185y i8s Roar: Lions of the Kalahari.  Filmed entirely on location in Botswana's famed desert, it's like a real-life Lion King.

    In 1988 The Franklin Institute was honored with an accreditation by the American Association of Museums (AAM), it's the highest honor that a museum can attain; of the 8,000 museums nationwide, only about 750 are accredited.  The AAM said of The Franklin Institute: "The Franklin Institute's mission and governance takes into account Franklin's historic role, that its facility is a national monument to Benjamin Franklin and that it has a leadership role in fostering a scientific and technically literate society."

    The museum is a true reflection of Ben Franklin- it is chock-full of ingenious ideas and demonstrations from the worlds of science, weather, health, space exploration, sports, and technology.  The museum's goal from its onset remains true more than ever today: to offer inventive, clever, and most of all hands-on demonstrations and exhibits for its visitors. 



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