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Catch Ben before he leaves Philadelphia

Exhibits in Pa. city mark 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth

Exhibits in Pa. city mark 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth

February 25, 2006|By KRISTIN WILSON

kristinw@herald-mail.com

PHILADELPHIA -

Benjamin Franklin is popping up everywhere in Philadelphia this year as the city continues a yearlong 300th birthday toast to the statesman, inventor, author and all around cool guy.

That's right, cool guy.

"Franklin - you can just have such a lot of fun with him," says Nicola Twilley, director of public programming for the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary. The founding father had a strong sense of humor as evidenced by his political cartoons and writings in Poor Richard's Almanack. Franklin also was a visionary for his time, speaking out against slavery more than 70 years before the beginning of the Civil War.

The focal point of the 300th celebration of Franklin's birth is "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" - one of the largest exhibitions to focus solely on Franklin's life. The 8,000-square-foot show with more than 250 original Franklin artifacts includes more than 40 interactive kiosks and hands-on displays to help bring Franklin to life, explains Page Talbott, chief curator of the exhibition.

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"We wanted people to get to know Franklin the man, not the myth," says Talbott. "We want people to understand that he came from rather humble beginnings and he was insatiable in terms of his desire to learn. His accomplishments came about because of his hard work."

The exhibit is divided into six sections that follow Franklin's life through its many phases, including his early years as a printer, his work as a philanthropist and his political career later in life. Guests can see books Franklin read as a boy, learn about Franklin's family and see the original printing equipment he once used.

One of the most unique elements of the show is a display of five original founding documents all signed by Franklin. Franklin's copy of the Constitution of the United States with his notes in the margin, a copy of the Treaty of Paris, the 1778 Treaties of Amity and Commerce, the Declaration of Independence and the Albany Plan of Union are all on display.

"This is the first time ever in the history of our country that all five of the founding documents that Franklin signed are brought together in one place," Talbott says. "It's quite a breathtaking experience to know that within a few hundred yards of each other you'll be able to see all of these founding documents."

The Ben Franklin exhibit includes many artifacts, pieces of artwork and documents that are rarely on display to the public as well as some that have never before been viewed, Talbott adds. Museums, private collectors and Franklin ancestors loaned such rare pieces for the exhibit, which will travel to St. Louis, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Paris in the next two years. Several artifacts will only appear in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is a premier place to learn more about Franklin since he left an indelible imprint upon the city, Talbott says. Franklin was instrumental in founding Pennsylvania Hospital, America's first public hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania, America's first nonsectarian college. Franklin was committed to improving the Philadelphia community and made many contributions to civic life.

"We have deliberately designed the exhibition to appeal to people of all different ages and all different knowledge levels about Franklin," says Talbott of the Franklin exhibition. "We hope people see that this is not just a history show. The show itself is full of fun and fancy. We try through technology to relate the exhibits to people today."

The subtitle of the exhibition - "In Search of a Better World" - is meant to refer to Franklin's life as much as it is meant to challenge people today to "be like Ben," Talbott says.

"We can all be searching for a better world," she says. "There is something about Franklin in each of us. We want people to ask themselves in the end, 'Could I be like Franklin?'"

The Franklin experience spills over from the Benjamin Franklin exhibition at the National Constitution Center and continues in dozens of locations and institutions throughout the city.

The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary offers "The Benjamin Franklin Treasure Trail" that takes curious Franklin-seekers to 21 different locations throughout the city. Each institution along the trail has an exhibit or program that teaches more about Franklin, his interests and his work. After viewing the exhibition, visitors can pick up a free "passport" and collect passport stamps at each of 21 locations. A completely filled passport can be entered into a drawing to win a Franklin goody basket, Twilley says.

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