Electricity

Review

of an Exhibition

by Paul Orselli

Published on April 22, 2010, Modified on May 17, 2010

  • Description:

    Appropriately enough for a museum called The Franklin Institute, the newly-opened “Electricity” exhibition features images, artifacts, and activities that relate to the scientific work of Benjamin Franklin, as well as other aspects of electricity.

    The first thing you encounter upon entering the exhibition is a large antique-looking key on a pedestal in front of a large photomural of a lightning strike. If you touch the key (and why wouldn’t you in a hands-on science center?) you get a slight ZAP! of electricity and set off a flash alluding, no doubt, to Franklin’s famous kite/key/lightning experiment. (Fortunately for visitors, the voltages involved here are much less substantial!)

    I liked that the exhibition employed a mix of: engaging interactives relating to different aspects of electricity and electromagnetic fields; strong, clean, and simple graphical labels (including lightboxes of evocative imagery inset into the floor near related exhibit components) and objects and artifacts drawn from The Franklin Institute’s own collections.

    Some highlights for me included updated versions of “classic” science center electricity exhibits with nice “twists.” These included a double hand circuit, field of compasses near an electrified coil, and Leyden jars (“old school” devices to store electrical charge) that visitors could activate by using their own bodies to charge and discharge objects at an “electrical lab bench” of sorts. I appreciated that you got to really experience electrical charges and electromagnetic fields in several ways throughout the exhibition.

    Beyond the “hands on” goodies, there are artfully displayed objects and artifacts (some directly related to Benjamin Franklin, like lightning rods, and original books detailing his electrical experimentation) and some just celebrating ubiquitous electricity-related objects like lightbulbs and their evolution. Two large 1940s era murals showing Benjamin Franklin experimenting with electricity and lightning are also placed in the gallery (after being rescued from behind curtains somewhere in the internal recesses of The Franklin’s labyrinthine building.) Overall, the juxtaposition of hands-on interactives and minds-on artifacts and objects was handled very well and added to my enjoyment of the Electricity exhibition. I wish more museums would look for these types of opportunities to include related objects and artifacts inside interactive exhibitions where possible.

    I also don’t recall many media kiosks or screens in the Electricity exhibition. Whether due to electomagnetic/engineering concerns, or strictly a design choice, I honestly didn’t miss the usual science center overload of screens. There is also a large wall-mounted art piece composed of what looks like a field or matrix of LEDs. According to the signage, the piece responds to the electromagnetic fields produced by your cellphone, which seems like a cool way to get visitors to think about EM fields in their day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my cellphone (and neither did any of the schoolkids in the exhibition) so I’ll have to come back to see how this piece works.

    Two “short circuits” struck me while moving through the Electricity exhibition. The first was the use of (I’m assuming) capacitance-based push buttons in some of the interactive exhibits. It wasn’t immediately obvious that what appeared to be circular graphics were actually push buttons (really “touch” buttons.) This was confusing for me as a sighted visitor, and I can only imagine how difficult to use these flush, graphic “buttons” would be for visually or learning impaired visitors. I understand the graphic/design intent, but I think it sacrifices a usage/accessibility variable, and would be worth considering changing.

    The second, and perhaps more glaring (dare I say “shocking”) design flaw in the Electricity exhibition is the centerpiece - the “Sustainable Dance Floor” which apparently generates power to illuminate itself as people move/stomp on the tiles. Ostensibly, a giant Tesla coil overhead will discharge at some point related to (in reaction to?) visitor activity. I wish I could tell you I saw that happen, but I didn’t (even after coming back several times to check.)

    This electronic dance floor with the Tesla “disco ball” seems like one of those ideas that sounded great on paper, but didn’t really come together in the implementation phase. Not to mention, ironically, the havoc that discharging a large Tesla coil must have inside (and outside!) the exhibition space.

    Those quibbles aside, I really enjoyed the Electricity exhibition, and would recommend it as a highlight of a visit to The Franklin.

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