Remembering Ben Franklin

The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary proves why this 10th son of a candlemaker is still instantly recognizable 300 years after his birth.

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." - Poor Richard's Almanack

Jan. 17 was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin, and with a few centuries' perspective, we can safely say that he has been a resounding success in the field of "not being forgotten." And he was no one-hit wonder. There are few historical figures who have earned their immortality through a more diverse assortment of numerous roles - including, but not limited to, Founding Father, writer, inventor, and international celebrity. A thorough survey of the man's life would require a deeper commitment than most people want to make online (Franklin began overachieving in his teens and continued throughout his life), but if you'd like to get a bit deeper than the customary tales of kites, bifocals, and namesake stoves, The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary offers a digestible introduction to the man whose portrait adorns the hundred-dollar bill.

Online companion to a traveling international exhibition ("Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World"), and also the name of a private nonprofit alliance created in 2000 to make the most of the 2006 anniversary, The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary is both an interactive introduction to the man's life, and a resource for those seeking further biographical information. Listings of commemorative events taking place throughout the year also make the site a worthwhile destination for those keen on attending real-world celebrations. Created by Terra Incognita, producer of such previously reviewed sites as Churchill and the Great Republic and Cycles: African Life Through Art, the presentation nicely matches visual touches that seem appropriate to the subject's own time with features that take full advantage of the Web's higher-tech capabilities.

As always, the visuals make the first impression when a visitor arrives at any website, and the Tercentenary's graphics and color scheme create the feel of a Franklin-era broadsheet. Navigational elements occupy the space normally reserved for a publication's 'flag,' and the bottom of each page features a hyperlinked masthead. Overall, the design offers a hint of the period without taking things to the "Ye Olde Webbe Site" extreme, and after setting the scene, it quickly steps back into its rightful role as a supporting element for the content. Still, the opening display does manage to incorporate a few modern touches in its presentation - such as rotating quotes from "Poor Richard's Almanack" in the flag, and the subtle visual modernity of the top of Ben's head 'breaking the frame' of his front-page portrait.

The exhibition itself breaks Franklin's life into a series of chapters, and begins with his teen years. Apprenticed to his brother at 12, Franklin was a published writer at 16 - under the cross-gender pseudonym of Silence Dogood - and ran away from home at 17. Later chapters recount the man who was so financially successful as a printer that he was able to retire at 42, as well as his Civic Visions (which included founding the University of Pennsylvania and America's first public hospital), his ongoing search for Useful Knowledge, and his time on the World Stage. Seeing Franklin closes the presentation with a few words on the ubiquity of the man's image in today's culture, and a photograph of his handwritten epitaph.

Each page of the exhibition is liberally salted with multimedia features. Most of these are images and artifacts related to Franklin's life, ranging from such mundane possessions as a family tea service to a hand-annotated copy of the Constitution. All of these can be enlarged and manipulated for detailed inspection, or sent to your printer, through the site's "Asset Viewer" - though the Print command will export only the full image of the artifact, and not whatever enlarged portion of that artifact you might be viewing at the time. Multimedia extras include a musical selection played on one of Franklin's many inventions (the glass armonica), and an audio sample from the writings of Silence Dogood, read in both a male voice representing its author, and the female voice of the "prim, middle-aged widow" portrayed to the readers.

In addition to the online exhibition, the Tercentenary offers a searchable database of national and international celebrations, educational resources, articles, trivia, and an extensive though not exhaustive collection of recommended websites. (One surprising omission is the current Library of Congress exhibit, Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words.) Finally, the Frankliniana Database will, at the end of February, provide access to some 350 objects closely associated to Franklin during his lifetime - each artifact represented by "a description, an image, a history of ownership (provenance), and reference to publications in which the object is cited."

As mentioned, the Tercentenary site doesn't go into great depth about its subject - but the external links should help dedicated fans find more extensive and more balanced information about the man. (There is little mention of the more controversial aspects of Franklin's life - you don't want to criticize someone on his 300th birthday - but external sites will help paint a more complete picture.) As it stands, the exhibition provides ample testimony as to why this 10th son of a candlemaker is still instantly recognizable 300 years after his birth. In short, he wrote things worth reading, and did things worth writing.

The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary can be found at http://www.benfranklin300.com/.

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