- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2000

Living an easy drive from the District's museum-rich Mall, Anne Daniel of Potomac could have gone to the Smithsonian to research her science project. Yet the young teen chose to return to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia during her spring break from Our Lady of Mercy School.

"She's been here a few times, but even though I live near here and she's from Maryland, this is my first visit," says Teresa Altiri, Anne's grandmother and a resident of Springfield, Pa. "I keep hearing that it's a fun place to visit."

"It is," agrees Anne, who plans to view one of the three Imax films showing in the four-story domed theater. "My favorite exhibits are the electrical hall and the big heart."

More than 850,000 visitors come each year to this unusual museum, planetarium and tribute to the scientific mind of Benjamin Franklin. Many of the visitors are schoolchildren often on field trips from schools around the Beltway, says Jeff Guaracino, spokesman for the 177-year-old museum. "People forget how easy it is to get to Philadelphia from D.C., and many don't know how many things we have here that you can't find anywhere else even in Washington."

The success of the museum, Mr. Guaracino says, is its ability to appeal to everyone in the family with its combination of hands-on, interactive exhibits that can keep the youngest visitor entertained and exhibits that awe older guests with state-of-the-art whiz-bang technology.

"If families are planning a visit to the historic sites, the museum is a great change of pace because kids can be so active here," he says. "This is a great time to visit the museum because we've just opened two great new attractions," says Mr. Guaracino, who urges families with limited time to make sure they see the SkyBike and the 3-D Theatre. Both exhibits opened this spring.

The SkyBike allows children of all ages to learn about gravity while balancing a bicycle on a 1-inch cable suspended 28 feet above the Atrium. The attraction is surrounded by a safety net, and the rider is strapped into the bicycle with a harness.

A group in the crowded Atrium watching a staff member test the bicycle was clearly divided into those (mostly parents) who shivered in horror and those (mostly children) who clamored to get on. The SkyBike is the first on the East Coast and only the second in the country. A ride on the bike costs $2.

Parents who remember the 3-D films of yesteryear will get a nostalgic thrill from a visit to the new 3-D Theatre. Visitors are given a pair of the familiar cardboard glasses with blue and red cellophane lenses. As soon as the short feature about the brain begins, however, it's clear the technology has advanced into the 21st century as laser images and state-of-the art computer animation blast off the screen. Admission to the 3-D Theatre is $3.

"Families must also see the heart," advises Mr. Guaracino, who says the room-size walk-through model has become "an icon" for the institute. "Parents who went through it as a child bring back their children, and they all go through it again." He says a young man proposed last month to his girlfriend in front of the heart a symbolic site on their last day at a local medical school.

An exhibit on the brain opened in January, but the giant two-lobed plastic brain with flashing lights is much less dramatic than the multistory heart. In the heart, visitors climb up and down narrow stairs to the sound of a loud heartbeat as they follow the route of a drop of blood through the chambers of the heart and to the lungs.

The museum was founded as a tribute to Franklin. It moved to its current location in 1934. Although the building shows signs of its age, exhibits and expansions have kept the museum, planetarium and Imax theaters on the cutting edge of technology which probably would earn the approval of the museum's namesake. A gallery is dedicated to Franklin's many inventions, and exhibits include his original lightning rod, swimming fins and an armonica, an instrument that makes music by running water over glasses of different sizes.

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