Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Caitlin Gillis

Published on March 24, 2012 , Modified on March 25, 2012

  • Description:

    The Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World is a traveling exhibition that has been around since 2005 though you certainly wouldn’t think it by looking at it. The design is sharp and sturdy, content accessible and entertaining, and the technology is oh so pretty. Various incarnations of the exhibition have been passed around to several US cities like Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Houston (as well as Paris, France) and seems to have been geared toward the mission and collection strengths of each institution by emphasizing a different aspect of Benjamin Franklin’s multi-dimensional character. Of course the National Archives has several fabulous documents to supplement the content of the exhibition but what stood out to me was the technology.

    There are several interactives but what really brings the exhibition together is the voice of Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries. The design, though it makes use of primary texts and period images as backdrops to the artifacts on display is clean and uncluttered. The voices of the actors are the main tool used to engage and entertain the visitor. Rather than presenting just bare facts and beautiful documents that are generally illegible to the average visitor the audio effectively encourages a more personal understanding of who Benjamin Franklin was and what he was like.

    Much of the audio in which the Benjamin Franklin actor is speaking is pulled from Franklin’s writings. So, right at the beginning Benjamin Franklin introduces himself via a quote from his autobiography as the visitor is faced with an introductory label and large reproduction of a period portrait of Benjamin Franklin. The exhibition immediately starts in on Benjamin Franklin’s climb to distinction which the visitor follows often from one attractive interactive to another. The next up was the first of three animated versions of an anecdote from Ben’s autobiography read aloud by the man himself. There were three buttons that read “start” in English, Spanish, and French which would cease the attraction loop and start the story over with subtitles corresponding with your selection. Only the second instance of this did not have a selection of subtitles to chose from. These stories did cause a bit of overlap between other audio in the exhibition. This could be addressed by simply lowering the volume. However, as the summer tourist season approaches the high volume will likely be balanced by the ambient noise of visitors. Just across the room was the Seeking Opportunity interactive game. This was a large touch screen with a small stool in front of it which allowed other visitors to watch as one person played the Oregon Trial like role-playing game. The player is asked to make decisions and manage their money in an effort to successfully rise in their chosen trade just like Benjamin Franklin did. Unfortunately, while I was visiting, one of the two Seeking Opportunity kiosks was not working. The next touch screen interactive was much simpler. You simply typed in your name and the game went through the motions of “printing” it with the same methods and technology that where used in Benjamin Franklin’s time. Both kiosks were working and were a good way to help visitors better understand the process in addition to the physical example of the printing press and the video of reenactors utilizing a similar machine. Shortly after there was a armonica on display that also had a video of someone playing a similar instrument. An excellent decision since if you have never seen an armonica it is rather strange looking and difficult to understand its purpose.

    The second half of the exhibit contains my four favorite pieces of technology. The first being a digital recreation of an experiment performed by Benjamin Franklin involving the concept of grounded versus ungrounded electricity. The scenario is well illustrated and the loud boom of the ungrounded lighting strike draws the attention of all the visitors in the immediate vicinity. Then there is the microscope, which is well hardened to the potential misuse of visitors. The apparatus itself is boxed up tight and the slides are mounted into a wheel one may spin until firmly halted on one of the slides by magnets underneath. Instead of looking down the image is projected onto a screen above so that other visitors can also see the specimens as everyone hears Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on each one as the wheel stops on them.

    Then comes the cockpit corner. Surrounded by a supersized period image of the room in which Benjamin faced severe criticism from his peers in the Privy Council in 1774. There is a mannequin to represent Benjamin Franklin and the visitor is asked to press the button and stand beside Franklin in the cockpit. The experience is highly engaging as you are immersed in the onslaught of rants and diatribes directed at the literally, and historically, mute Benjamin Franklin. Last but not least is the Master Diplomat interactive. Rather than providing a stool the actual touch screen is mounted on a waist height post a foot or so away from the display screen (much larger than any of the others in the exhibit) and is really no larger than a small paperback book. You are asked a question like “How did Franklin manage to arrange that the Treaty of Paris be largely in the USA’s favor?” and select form the touch screen which of Franklin’s personal characteristics were utilized to create the outcome. At first I thought this was a quiz but there were no wrong answers. After selecting one characteristic you can select any other or continue on to the next question. Once you have made a selection there is a very long but interesting playback with general historical information, several background graphics of primary texts, as well as quotes and historical images from all the persons involved. All the information is subtitled in long paragraphs, and each line is highlighted as it is read aloud by the narrator or actors representing the people being quoted.
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