Robots and British Nosh

Having used the Franklin Institute as an indoor playground for a couple of years, last year we took a break from our membership so that we could return with renewed enthusiasm.  In retrospect, President’s Day was not the smartest choice for becoming members again and reintroducing the kids to the joys of science museums.  The place was absolutely jam-packed and every gallery and area was heaving with people. I do not do well in crowds at all – it’s like an instant recipe for stress and anxiety – but I also feel harassed by the behaviour of other people when places are so busy.  For example, there were way too many children pushing and shoving there way into taking turns with interactive exhibits.  My kids have a tendency to hang back and are too polite to challenge others who queue jump but they still get irked and frazzled by the rudeness of others and, of course, we then get the pleasure of dealing with our annoyed kids.  While the parents of the pushy-shovey kids seemed to be nowhere in the vicinity whenever their kids were misbehaving, conversely there were other parents who were attached like limpets to their kids which also made it nigh impossible to manoeuvre in some areas.  Imagine experiencing epic levels of irritation while trying to cheerfully engage children in science even though you are completely an Arts and Humanities person.  That was the experience I had in the Franklin Institute on Monday.

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While we stopped by our favourite sections and did what activities we could, we also visited a special exhibition called Robot Revolution.  It was, strangely enough, all about how modern robotic engineering is being applied to different aspects of life.  For instance, there was a large surgical apparatus and the woman standing next to me explained that her father had actually been operated on recently by just such a machine.  There were also robotic prosthetic limbs and robots designed to assess dangers in conflict zones.  There were, however, also robots playing soccer and one that could unicycle.  A big hit with my youngest son was a robotic seal pup, designed to provide therapeutic comfort to people who can’t interact with real animals.  They also enjoyed an area where they got to clip together various cubes, each of which served a different function, in order to construct their own robots.

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We did not stay at the Franklin Institute for an extended period simply because the crowds were unbearable.  It was good to be back after our year long break, however, and we were reminded about all it has to offer.  We look forward to more trips there this coming year but hopefully with much smaller numbers of people crammed into the space.

We decided to treat ourselves to a little luxury by dining out in the city.  Mr Pict selected The Dandelion, which he has eaten in several times with colleagues.  We were actually supposed to go there for my birthday celebration but there was a stuff up with the booking so it did not happen.  I think, therefore, that it was my Unbirthday dinner.  The Dandelion serves British cuisine.  For many decades, people scoffed at the idea of British cuisine, regarding it was an oxymoron, but British food can actually be really very good.  The restaurant is housed in what looked to have been a residential building and was decorated in a very eclectic way, a sort of ramshackle chic.  It reminded me of a mixture of junk shops and cafes from my childhood.  Of course, we loved the tastebud nostalgia of the whole experience too.  Our children immediately ordered glasses of Ribena – a blackcurrant squash from the UK – and I had a Pimm’s Cup.  There were several things I could have ordered but I plumped for the fish and chips as I was eager to see if they could make chips the way they do in Britain, crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, and I am happy to report that they were a very tasty success, as was the beer battered fish.  I usually only manage one course of food but I pushed my limits because there was Sticky Toffee Pudding on the menu.  I have not had a Sticky Toffee Pudding since we emigrated (I really ought to make it but never do) so I just could not resist the temptation.  Not only was the cake delicious and light and deliciously treacly, but it was also served with date ice cream.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings all loved every morsel of their two courses of food too.  Indeed, Mr Pict declared that the short rib was the best he had ever consumed.  The luxury of delectable food in a pleasant setting with great service went a long way to mitigate against the stress of an overcrowded museum and ensured that our President’s Day trip to Philly was a success.

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Art of Lego at the Franklin Institute

Our original plan had been to let our Franklin Institute annual membership expire and then take up an annual membership to something else.  However, not only did we get a great deal on a renewal of our membership but we have found that we enjoy popping into the Franklin Institute so much that it was worth continuing our membership.  The place is basically an indoor playground for our brood which has been a particularly worthwhile investment this winter will all the cold, ice and snow.

This past weekend, we had out first non-family-member house guests.  They only just qualify as non-family since Nacho is Mr Pict’s oldest friend (in terms of longevity, not age) and is pretty much part of the family whether he likes it or not and that means his partner gets co-opted too.  Looking for something that would occupy the kids while also engaging the adults, the Franklin Institute was the obvious choice.  Plus they are hosting a travelling exhibition all about lego named The Art of the Brick.  It was a must-see for we lego fanatics.  We were not disappointed by the exhibition.

The first section of the exhibition was famous works of art reproduced using nothing but lego bricks.  Every single painting or sculpture was instantly recognisable despite the unusual medium which not only testifies to the flexibility of those little plastic blocks but also to the power of certain works of art to become iconic.  Our oldest son had wondered if there would be the entire Bayeux tapestry made out of lego, thinking back to our visit to Bayeux a few years ago, and lo and behold there was a small section of the tapestry.  There was also the Mona Lisa, a Rembrandt self-portrait in his distinctive murky, shadowy tones, the Girl with the Pearl Earring, her earring standing proud from the rest of the lego, and the Vetruvian Man, almost monochrome yet still immediately identifiable.  There were particular highlights among the many reproductions of two dimensional works.  The colours of the bricks in The Scream were spectacular and the screaming figure had been rendered as a sculpture emerging from the landscape.  My kids loved re-enacting the Scream.  The textural paint of Van Gogh’s Starry Night had been recreated through use of lots of little studs swirling across the sky.  The graphic quality of Hokusai’s Great Wave was perfect for the geometric lego blocks.  American Gothic had been turned into a sculpture.  My personal favourite, however, was the lego version of Klimt’s Kiss which had been turned into a full size three dimensional sculpture.  The lego bricks were used to create all the luscious pattern in the figure’s clothing and I was impressed by the way the curves had been sculpted out of a material so blocky.

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The second section was devoted to famous sculptures.  There was the beautiful bust of Nefertiti, Michelangelo’s David, complete with pert brick butt, a Degas ballerina, the Willendorf Venus, a Chinese Imperial Archer and even a massive Moai.  I know how long it takes my kids and I to build a lego set so we were staggered by how long it must have taken the artist – Nathan Sawaya – to build these full size sculptures, especially without instructions.

The final section was a showcase for Sawaya’s original works of art.  They were amazing, not just in terms of the engineering involved but also the imagination and creativity.  Many were human figures that seemed to suggest some sort of emotional state.  There was a kneeling figure whose hands had broken down into individual bricks which represented the nightmare of the artist no longer having the use of his hands.  There was a figure swimming, half submerged.  There was one peeling off its blue brick skin to reveal a grimacing skull beneath the face.  Two plump figures walking hand in hand.  A gigantic red head.  A hunched green figure emerging from a wall.  There were massive colourful skulls, a huge dinosaur skeleton, a series of props built from lego which featured in an accompanying gallery of photographs.  Finally – as a nod to this particular locale on the exhibition’s tour – there was a liberty bell with the crack created out of brightly coloured bricks.

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After the exhibition, we then had a jaunt around the rest of the museum visiting the boys’ favourite haunts, including sitting in the aeroplane cockpit, making circuits in the electricity section, several runs around the heart, a pedal on the sky bike, surfing and wall climbing in the sports section and a scramble around in the brain climbing frame.  Another great day out and very good value for money.  We definitely feel confident in our decision to renew our Franklin Institute membership.

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Hearts and Other Organs on Valentine’s Day

Nothing says Valentine’s Day like actual hearts, right?  So off we went to the Franklin Institute for a family day out so that half of us could visit the special exhibition ‘Body Worlds: Animals Inside Out’.  Valentine’s Day happened to fall on an especially chilly day so using our annual membership pass for some indoor entertainment and education was perfect.

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The exhibition was superb from start to finish.  The kids and I had enjoyed the animal autopsy documentary series ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ so I knew we would find it engaging.  I went around with my 11 and 7 year olds while Mr Pict took the other two boys around other areas of the museum.  The exhibition showcases the work of the anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens and his use of the plastination process to preserve and demonstrate the internal organs, musculature and blood systems of a variety of animals.  Being able to see all of the detail of each animal aids understanding of how evolution has worked to enable each animal to adapt to its environment and needs and – in a context that enabled and encouraged comparison and contrast – to see how similar skeletons and organs work differently in diverse species.  The boys and I pored over the detail in each specimen and read every plaque.  We also wandered back and forth to go and study something again.

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My 7 year old is obsessed with horses so he was fascinated by all the horse specimens in particular.  There was a horse skull, a wafer thin slice of a horse’s head, a horse’s head split into three sections, a horses head comprising nothing but the capillaries and a young horse rearing up.  There was always the potential for my son to be disturbed by the sight of dead horses but the little scientist in him was stronger.  He was absorbed in seeing the adaptations in the legs, the size of the brain cavity, the thickness of the nose and in learning why it is that horses cannot vomit.

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The handling of the specimens was fantastic in terms of bringing the educational lessons to life, for instance in showing how the muscles and skeleton combine to handle movement. One diorama depicted two reindeer in mid gallop.  I like to think that the dissected human we saw in the last gallery was not Santa.  There was also a bull posed as if ready for a charge which evocatively demonstrated the power in its muscles and the energy contained within them.  There were running ostriches, one showing the circulatory system and one showing the muscles.

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There were familiar farm animals galore, from dissected sheep and goats to ducks and piglets shaped from the mass of red wiring that was their circulatory system.  There were rabbits and peeled cats – including the nervous system of one moggy – and frogs and lizards and a dog caught in mid-bark.  There were slices of fish, there were preserved octopus and squid – the latter providing us with the opportunity to see just how large its eyes were.  The more exotic land beasts, however, provided the highlights of the exhibition.  There was a camel – or rather a conflation of three camels in order to illustrate the movement of the head – which the kids found fascinating since camels are such peculiar looking beasts even from the outside.  The specimen was used to illustrate its complex digestive system involving four stomachs.  Best of all, however, was the giraffe exhibit.  One giraffe was presented in thin slices.  We could stand between its legs and look up through its semi-transparent layers.  Completely weird and compelling.  The other giraffe was dissected, its skin peeled off to show the skeleton, muscles and organs, but the specimen was shown as if mid-run.  Next to it was a preserved heart in order to show how the blood pressure of a giraffe is made possible.

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It was not just the whole animals that were fascinating, however.  I loved the sculptural quality of the tangled lines that formed the circulatory system, all the blood vessels turned into crimson plastic.  The hearts of various animals were shown side by side so that the different structures and scales could be compared.  A display my cheeky 7 year old especially enjoyed was all about the reproductive organs, the male parts of a reindeer, the testicles of a bull and a fetal reindeer.  I admit that made me feel a little sad as did the baby camel on display.  Apparently all the specimens were sourced ethically from vets and zoos and no animals were killed for the purpose of the exhibit.  My boys and I certainly emerged from the exhibition with greater understanding of the wonders of biology.

We went to rejoin the other half of the Pict family who were – oddly enough – running around in the Franklin Institute’s giant heart.  In addition to the heart area and the other favourite, the brain, we went to explore two sections of the Institute we had not visited in any of our prior visits, namely the sections dedicated to electricity and to engineering.  The boys especially enjoyed creating electrical circuits with their bodies, initially just completing the circuit with their own individual bodies but gradually linking hands and forming a circular chain in order that the electricity pass through them all and make the light come on.  My highlight of the engineering section was seeing Maillardet’s Automaton.  Constructed in the 18th Century, it is a complex contraption, a figure programmed so that it draws numerous pictures and writes poems.  You can see a short video of it in action on YouTube because certainly I am incapable of describing it adequately.

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We have plans to return to the Franklin Institute again in a few weeks’ time so we are certainly getting our money’s worth out of our annual membership.

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