Big Changes Begin at the Iconic Franklin Institute in Philadelphia

Don't worry: the giant heart isn't going anywhere.

The Franklin Institute

The Franklin Institute / Photograph by Laura Swartz

Black holes. Everybody wants to know about black holes. That’s what Abby Bysshe, chief experience and strategy officer at the Franklin Institute, realized after the museum’s extensive, months-long focus-group research with 150 schoolkids from Philadelphia proper. She laughed when I mentioned the irony of children wanting you to build a new science exhibit around one of the most difficult things in all of science to explain.

On November 4th, the Franklin Institute debuted Wondrous Space. This is an $8.5 million permanent exhibit that delves into those mysterious light-swallowing phenomena as well as into spacecraft and space exploration, the two other subjects that kept coming up in the Institute’s research.

Visitors will also get to experience an upgraded planetarium and observatory. (No, there won’t be a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the museum’s once-state-of-the-art IMAX theater, which became less state-of-the-art and somewhat run-down over the years. Newsflash: That theater is no more.)

Franklin Institute Wondrous Space

Wondrous Space at the Franklin Institute / Photograph courtesy of the Franklin Institute

Wondrous Space is the first of seven new core exhibits that the Institute intends to unveil as part of its overhaul on the occasion of its 200th anniversary, which comes in February. Next year will also see the debut of a new permanent exhibit about the human body.

Franklin Institute Wondrous Space

Full-body interactives at the Franklin Institute’s Wondrous Space exhibit / Photograph by Laura Swartz

“Yes, people want to know about what’s ‘out there,’” says Larry Dubinski, the museum’s president and CEO. “But what’s also clear is that they want to know about themselves.” That’s where the human body exhibit comes in. The 8,000-square-foot exhibit will surround the beloved giant heart, which, Dubinski smartly promises, isn’t going anywhere. (Can you imagine the letters and protests if he sent the heart to the scrapyard?!)

Franklin Institute heart

Giant heart at the Franklin Institute / Photograph courtesy of the Franklin Institute

The as-yet-unspecified additional exhibits are under development for the years to follow, though more is planned for 2024. A two-story gallery will display various items from the museum’s vast collection of artifacts on a rotating basis, including pieces from its peerless Wright Brothers archive, Ben Franklin’s glass armonica, and an early light bulb from the workshop of Thomas Edison, plus lots of random bits and notable miscellany.

The museum isn’t just changing what it displays; it’s also changing how it displays things. “One thing the kids pressed us on is that they don’t want to read as much,” Bysshe says.

Franklin Institute Wondrous Space

Activities like designing a rocket and programming a rover are placed amongst space-travel artifacts at the Franklin Institute’s new Wondrous Space exhibit. / Photograph courtesy of the Franklin Institute

Museums like the Franklin Institute are known for their placards filled with paragraphs for each individual item in an exhibit. But in the short-attention-spanned 21st century, nobody is reading all of that. So the museum is designing its new and future exhibits with that in mind, incorporating audio, video, and other technology to make the storytelling more consumable and those exhibits more adaptable in a year or three or 10, as new technology becomes available, adaptability being something that has greatly hindered it in the past. For a museum all about science and innovation, the Institute sometimes seemed rather stuck in its ways.

“We’re reimagining everything,” insists Dubinski. “We’re taking imagination and immersion and impact to a new level. And we’re meeting people where they are.”


Published as “Yes, the Big Heart Stays” in the November 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.