Work begins on Franklin Institute expansion to house ‘Your Brain’

    The Franklin Institute has broken ground on “Your Brain.”

    The science museum has started construction to expand its 78-year-old building on the Parkway in Philadelphia, adding a new permanent exhibition about the human brain.

    The new Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion will add 53,000 square feet of education and exhibition space. It’s expected to be finished in 2014.


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    “Our special exhibition gallery that we currently use is not very effective,” said Franklin Institute CEO Dennis Wint. “This will give us a large space — 17,000 square feet — that is adjacent to [the other], as opposed to separated across the entire building, which is a cumbersome circulation problem for us.”

    The centerpiece of the new pavilion will be “Your Brain,” to be made up of about 30 interactive elements demonstrating how the brain works. Those elements are now being created in a back room, where a half-dozen engineers are playing with brains.

    The prototypes they are working up include pixelated mirror that displays the user’s full-body nerve system; an exposed plastic brain with buttons that cut off certain areas that control perceptions (sight, sound, and language); and a mannequin head with a hole in the temple where users can touch the silicone-based brain inside. Engineers consulted with neurosurgeons to get the most accurate “ick” feeling.

    Each interactive kiosk is designed to accomplish three things: impart knowledge, be simple to operate, and be fun. Engineers are working on a table-top touch-screen that allows users to assemble individual neuron cells into webs that transmit nerve signals. The computer screen is colorful, interactive (even with multiple users), makes noise, and flashes.

    “The beauty of this interface is that it really gets across the point that these neurons move and change and grow and connect,” said senior exhibit developer Jayatri Das. “That’s really what happens in your brain.”

    The Franklin’s most memorable exhibit is the giant walk-through heart. A walk-through brain would not be as educational because it’s not a mechanical organ. Instead, the brain exhibition will encourage visitors to consider their own brain while that brain is learning about brains.

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