Franklin Institute's new pavilion opens in Philadelphia

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Just as the Franklin Institute eases into its new 53,000-square-foot, $41 million Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion, which opened last weekend, the science center figures it needs to get out of the building more often.

And it is. The 190-year-old institute is opening science high schools in Egypt and Philadelphia, training teachers in science curriculum, and developing programs that turn on young scholars to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Some of these programs are well-established. The institute has deployed mobile science shows for nearly 80 years and reaches 200,000 students a year from Virginia to Connecticut. But there's no question that, more than ever, the Franklin is increasing its reach and that the Karabots Pavilion ends, at least for now, its focus on its Parkway building.

“This is the last construction we’re going to do for a long while,” says Larry Dubinski, the chief operating officer who July 1 inherits the CEO and president titles from Dennis M. Wint.

The Karabots Pavilion, in fact, has been designed to facilitate the Franklin Institute’s contact with the outside world. Square footage for traveling shows has doubled. Digital technology built into the space will allow scientists and students to make contact with counterparts around the world. “The first-floor education space allows us to double the number of kids we serve,” says Frederic Bertley, senior vice president for science. “That's what excites me.”

When the Futures Center, the institute’s last major expansion, opened in 1990, the goal was in part to reinvigorate attendance. The bump was considerable, but temporary, and the institute never finished the center's fundraising campaign. Unpaid bills were financed with a bond debt whose payments linger today.

In part to help finance that debt, the institute started to import traveling exhibitions, and the new pavilion reflects this important revenue source. Some shows require venues with climate-control systems to keep temperature and humidity at specific levels; the William Penn Foundation paid for such a system for the pavilion.

Traveling shows are here to stay. “The traveling-exhibition model has become important to us to drive revenue and attendance,” says Troy Collins, senior vice president of programs, marketing, and business development.

Such shows, however, make year-to-year attendance figures more volatile, and since hitting 1.7 million visitors in 2007 — the year of the King Tut show — attendance has softened, from 861,959 in 2008 to 754,989 last year.

But as the institute increases activities beyond the building, the core attendance figure tells only part of the story of who is being served by, and who is funding, the Franklin. Many outside activities come with their own revenue streams — government grants or philanthropy. Building science high schools in Cairo, for instance, a project with three U.S. partners, was partly paid for with a $25 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Franklin is also expanding outreach and educational initiatives to underserved populations in the suburbs, Camden, and North Philadelphia. “This is a workforce-development issue,” Mr. Dubinski says. “The future of job development is in STEM, and we need to help facilitate that. I think philanthropists see the importance of supporting education and workforce development.”

He says it will be important to both reverse the decline in attendance downtown and pursue avenues for presenting science outside the building. He says that in recent months he has met with 75 current and potential partners to discuss programs to bring science to poorer communities — to be paid for with philanthropy — and to more well-to-do suburbs on an earned-revenue model.

“There are definitely folks who do not want to drive into the city,” Mr. Dubinski said. “We are looking to aggressively expand those programs. I think what you will see is new and deeper partnerships.”


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