New exhibit on founding father opens in Atlanta next week

By Curt Yeomans


Local descendants of Benjamin Franklin have been waiting for more than a year to see an exhibit honoring their famous ancestor come to Georgia.

On Tuesday, three of them attended the exclusive preview of the "Benjamin Franklin: In search of a better world" exhibit, which opens July 4 at the Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Rd., Atlanta. After speaking with attendees who wanted to meet them, the descendants made their way into the exhibit to see Franklin's spectacles, a rare copy of the first edition of "Poor Richard's Almanac" and interactive exhibits explaining some of his scientific experiments.

The preview was also a change from the norm for Franklin's descendants, who are usually met with looks of disbelief when they mention the famous branch on their family tree.

"You tell people that you're descended from Benjamin Franklin and they're like 'Yeah, right,'" said Sarah Stingley, Franklin's sixth great-granddaughter and a resident of Atlanta. "When you studied Ben in school, you just kept quiet about being related to him because no one would believe you anyway."

The Atlanta History Center is the last American location to get the Franklin exhibit, which has also made stops in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Denver and Houston. After the exhibit closes on Oct. 14, it will be packed and sent to Paris, its first international stop.

The exhibit, which includes 240 artifacts and 40 hands-on activities, is sponsored by General Electric, whose vice-president of energy services, Dan Heintzelman, spoke to guests at the beginning of the preview.

"Imagination is the foundation of what General Electric stands for," he said. "Therefore, we're excited to sponsor an exhibit which brings insight into the mind of Benjamin Franklin."

One part of the exhibit popular with guests at Tuesday's preview were green, wooden chairs which had a pedal underneath. When a person tapped the pedal, it caused an overhead flap to swing back and forth, like a fan to keep the person cool.

The exhibit is located in one of two exhibit halls at the history center. One exhibit hall, located across the lobby from the center's front door, highlights Franklin's work as a printer. This part of the exhibit includes an 18th Century printing press, from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and a computer where guests can type in their name and view a demonstration of the process of printing a document with the guest's name on it.

This part of the exhibit also includes the only known copy of the first edition of "Poor Richard's Almanac," a small pamphlet about six pages in length. It is kept in a glass box which has a cloth flap over it to prevent damage from light.

"Getting to see the first copy of the almanac was amazing because it's so rare that a person will get a chance to see that," said Catherine Woodling, media relations officer for Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who attended the preview with her mother, Ruth. "This exhibit is definitely a must see."

Catherine and Ruth Woodling added that the exhibit is kid-friendly, noting opportunities for children to reenact some of Benjamin Franklin's experiments, and study his life experiences, including his reprimand by Lord Alexander Wedderburn for leaking the personal letters of Massachusetts Royal Gov. Thomas Hutchinson to the public, and his famous kite-flying experiment used to test his theory that lightning has an electric charge.

"He was one of the great geniuses of his time," Ruth Woodling said. "Him and Thomas Jefferson."

Other highlights of the exhibit include a piece highlighting the contributions made by Franklin and other members of Junto, a group dedicated to improving the quality of life in Philadelphia. Franklin, for example, was the first president of the University of Pennsylvania, founded Philadelphia's fire department, several libraries, a scientific society, and organized and volunteered in a militia.

"I think he'd love modern society with all of the technology that we have now," said Stingley.