WWBFD? (What Would Benjamin Franklin Do?)

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“Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World” opens Friday at the Minnesota History Center

Starting tomorrow, the Minnesota History Center is presenting an exhibition on the life and work of Benjamin Franklin. And certainly no founding father is more deserving of his own touring show.

Exhibit developer Ros Remer put the show together originally in 2006 to mark Franklin’s 300th birthday, and has retooled the exhibition for a second tour, beginning at the MHC. Remer says Franklin was several years older than his fellow founders (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, et al), and as such was really their elder statesman. He was not just a witness, but a player in both the political and scientific revolutions of the 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin’s legacy is very profound. Every day around us we see things like “Franklin Plumbing Co” and “Franklin Investment Funds,” and a lot of Franklin memorabilia, not to mention the 100 dollar bill. So he’s very much present in our minds and our subconscious.

But his real legacy has to do with the things he improved upon in his own life – and I say improvement because he wasn’t an inventor, he looked around and saw things that could be done better and found ways to do that.

In his 84 years, Franklin was a master printer, a diplomat, a scientist and a philosopher. He improved how street lamps worked, developped a method for keeping boulevards clean, figured out how a city should respond to a house fire, came up with bifocals, established the first American lending library, created the “Franklin stove,” and of course experimented with the properties of electricity (and this is not an exhaustive list).

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Part of the interactive multimedia presentation from the Benjamin Franklin exhibition

Remer says Franklin was the consumate communicator, keeping numerous correspondants. She says if he were alive today he’d probably be a lover of Facebook and Twitter, allowing him to share his pithy quotes with the world on a moment’s notice. Can’t you just see it?

@PoorRichard: Hancock, might I remind you: Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.

@PoorRichard: Hey George! Don’t throw stones at your neighbors if your own windows are glass.

So who is the modern day Benjamin Franklin? Remer says whoever he or she is, they’re probably not in the United States.

Benjamin Franklin was living in a developping country. He was living at a time of enormous and rapid change. And when you look around the world today you see countries that are developping, changes that are related to the environment and the economy. These are the people who are innovating and improving and being the most entrepreneurial right now. So I think looking for a modern day Benjamin Franklin involves looking a little more globally.

Franklin himself wished he could see the future, and just how much things would improve:

I have sometimes almost wished it had been my Destiny to be born two or three Centuries hence. For Inventions of Improvement are prolific, and beget more of their Kind. The present Progress is rapid. Many of great Importance, now unthought of, will before that Period be procur’d; and then I might not only enjoy their Advantages, but have my Curiosity satisfy’d in knowing what they are to be.

–Benjamin Franklin to Rev. John Lathrop, 1788

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An excerpt from the front pages of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”

Ros says she hopes visitors to the Benjamin Franklin exhibition at the Minnesota History Center come away with a better sense of all that Franklin accomplished and a better sense of the man. But most of all she hopes people are inspired by his life to look at how they can improve their own world.

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