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Karen Heller: Institutions struggle with the role of culture

The Franklin got its groove back. After a year of being The Franklin - which sounds like some swank condo project - the place is slowly reinstating the "Institute."

The Franklin got its groove back.

After a year of being The Franklin - which sounds like some swank condo project - the place is slowly reinstating the "Institute."

"We're quietly going back," says spokeswoman Kat Stein. "We found that there was some confusion." And sometimes less really is less.

Gone is the smell-o-vision of last year's dubious "Real Pirates." Instead, there's "Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy" - you know, real science - as well as the exhibit "Race: Are We So Different?" produced by the American Anthropological Association.

So the institute might be forgiven, a bit, for "Star Trek: The Exhibition," complete with Capt. Kirk's chair. The true damage of TV's Star Trek, incidentally, is not its wiggy clothing or Kirk's intergalactic randiness, but the concept of the transporter, playing as it does with the whole space-time continuum while introducing an alluring yet unattainable alternative to the horrors of commercial air travel.

The institute is to be commended for its real-life science project of the red-tailed hawk and her three eyasses - the preferred term for hawk chicks - nesting on its ledge. The webcam has attracted more than 300,000 clicks, while engendering a debate about whether it was right to rescue an eyas that attempted flight too young.

It isn't as easy to draw crowds as it once was, given that kids are hooked on speed-fueled forms of entertainment and that ticket prices aren't low. Therefore, if a museum can draw crowds with whistles, birds, and phasers, then illuminate with Galileo's telescope, so be it. What's wrong is having nothing but movie tie-ins, junk science, and no substance, not even much fun.

Meanwhile, the terrific National Constitution Center seems to be veering off course. In October, that great constitutional scholar Diana, Princess of Wales, will be the subject of an exhibition exploring her engagement, wedding, children, and humanitarian works. There's no mention of whether the show will consider the legal ramifications of her marital affairs and Fleet Street manipulation.

The current Napoleon exhibit, rather than examining his civil code - though there is an interesting symposium July 20 - offers more handsome artifacts than ideas.

"These shows bring people to the center who wouldn't otherwise come," says center CEO Linda E. Johnson. "This is for people who think that the Constitution Center is too intellectual or not for them. Perhaps they will come to see Diana, but ultimately see Freedom Rising and Signers' Hall."

The Constitution and American history may seem tedious to some - though that's hardly the case - so they need to sprinkle princess dust all over the area to get the Entertainment Tonight crowd into the building. Shows are expensive and time-consuming to construct, but the Constitution Center, host to insightful, substantive programming, can do better than this. Next spring, the center may return to substance with "Ancient Rome and America."

Over in Northern Liberties, Bart Blatstein dreamed of Rome's Piazza Navona, and built himself a Philadelphia version. His ambition is admirable. At the 80,000-square-foot Piazza at Schmidts, there are a bar, a diner, and the obligatory coffee houses, and a dog-grooming parlor nearby. Apparently, not even a wretched economy can slay the desire to pamper canines.

Instead of Bernini's Fountain of Four Rivers, the developer erected a 40-foot Daktronics LED television that airs Phillies games at night, sometimes with bingo, other times with karaoke. (So you can sing your slurs at the Red Sox Nation?)

During the week, I caught ESPNews running silently and nonstop to the largely empty plaza. It was like being at the gym, but so much bigger, weirder, and wrong, a jock version of Big Brother. Why reach for Rome, yet settle for television? Instead, how about showing video and still work by regional artists? Honestly, we can handle the culture.