Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Unsolicited Advice for the Franklin Institute

The Franklin Institute
has been doing a lot correct lately, especially in terms of drawing in visitors through huge exhibits. I’m mixed on its recent marketing campaign — Curious — and how they are now referring to themselves as The Franklin.

According to some, they’ve lost their roots and are “dumbing down” science too much in order to sell tickets to flashy shows. I don’t think there is a need to be so dramatic, but you can make the argument that the Franklin Institute has been downplaying its strengths in engineering and science in order to hype the big traveling exhibits (and they’ve been HUGE) and IMAX.

They don’t need my help or advice, but I think I’ll offer it anyway.

1: Make Philly

The Franklin Institute was built in an era when science and technology wasn’t purely the domain of universities and global corporations. Many major scientific advances of the 19th century were made by people we’d consider intelligent amateurs or enthusiasts today. Same too with technology, the TV and the airplane were both, essentially, kitbashed in a garage workshop

Today, that spirit has returned, heralded by folks like Mr. Jalopy with Make magazine. Make has spawned a Maker Movement, of sorts, a resurgent appreciation of DYI science projects mixed with the notion that technology is, itself, an art form.

There is a Maker Faire in San Francisco and Austin, so why not organize one in Philly? We’re in a good location to represent the eastern seaboard and there is plenty of room. We also have plenty of local research university talent. The Franklin could support the Faire and encourage the Maker spirit year-round with workshops in physics, electronics and, I dunno, welding.

2: World’s Fair Philly

Its a long tradition among World’s Fairs and its a promise that the EPCOT Center never lived up to: create a showcase for new technology. Create a permanent and permanently revolving exhibit to show off the latest consumer technologies and educate on the science and engineering behind them.

Take e-ink, for example, as an emerging technology with an interesting science story behind it. I can easily see an exhibit that showcases how e-ink works, including demonstrations and actual product samples that people can hold and play with.

You can also use it as a means of fundraising development.

3: Franklin at the Mall

The last time I was at IKEA, I heard on the PA that a Franklin Institute science demonstration was about to take place. Now, I couldn’t drag the toddler away from the cheap stuffed toys by the cafeteria in time to make it to the demo, but I’d imagine it was part of the Franklin’s traveling exhibit team. At the time, I thought it was a fantastic idea.

Let’s take that one step further. One of the biggest problems often heard about Philly tourism, among the museums in particular, is that many of the suburbanites don’t want to bother coming into the city. The standard complaints apply: crime and the lack of parking. While you are not likely to be robbed or accosted in Center City, it can be a pain to get to. Why do the suburbs matter? Simply put, there are more people living just outside the city borders in Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware and Chester than live inside the city. And, to be blunt, they also tend to have more money.

Why not bring a slice of the museum out to the suburbs? Rent an empty store at the King of Prussia mall, staff it with traveling science show people and replicate a couple of classic Franklin exhibits (more pulleys, less giant heart). Better yet, convert a dead store outside the mall into a mini-museum, doll it up with fake columns and the like.

The whole think will whet the appetite a bit and give this vast pool of people something effortless to do with their kids on a rainy day. A store wouldn’t hurt either.

4: Adult Education

Going back to the Make theme for a sec. I think the Franklin would do well to offer workshops in the craft of technology, but also hold adult, college-level classes a la the Wagner in topics in physics, astronomy and engineering.

While I’m not suggesting the Franklin opens a Pennco Tech franchise, one of the Franklin Institute’s original missions was to educate adult workers and laborers in order to help them advance their careers and stations in life. I think the need is still there.

5: Roleplaying Science

OK, his one is a little more abstract, so bear with me. Its an idea for a quasi-educational game.

When my daughter was born three years ago, I got hooked on Kingdom of Loathing in the wee hours while trying to rock her to sleep. KOL is send-up of online roleplaying games. Aside from its charming stick figure aesthetic and its goofy mix of pop and geek humor, the game was addictively generous with rewards even though you only had a few turns each day. It was also smart in that you could keep playing forever…each time you win again, you’re presented with an option of reincarnating as a new type of character with all sorts of new challenges.

I stopped because I realized that I could keep cycling forever. That, and I needed to sleep.

So, here’s my harebrained idea. Create a science-oriented adventure roleplaying for kids in conjunction with local schools. Keep it light-hearted and fun without being too “I’m trying to be hip” for the kids — actually, model the geeky sensibility of KOL and lose the references to booze, sex and drugs. Create tasks — adventures — that could be done both online and on paper using math and scientific reasoning, which will allow the kids to advance through the adventure. Create enough variety and flexibility into the adventures that kids could cycle through endlessly or even compete against each other for points or speed. You could even create special tasks that kids can only perform at the Franklin Institute itself.

The other carrot would be the rewards. KOL has “tiny plastic trophies” which players can hunt for and win online (and real ones they can buy at the gift shop). Why not offer cheap plastic trophies for kids who earn certain amounts of points or who meet special challenges. Throw in some t-shirts too for that matter.

Obviously, this last suggestion would require a number of resources…prolly a grant or two in addition to some underwriting.

Let me know if you’re interested, Mr. Franklin Institute. I’m game.