A spotlight picks out an actor, arms outstretched.
I am sitting with my American-born, Australian-raised daughter in a theater-in-the-round at the fascinating US National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
We the People
“We the People… Who are we and what makes us a people?” She continues, “The American Revolution saw a home-grown army of shopkeepers and farmers take on the massed forces of the most powerful nation on earth.”
Rousing music fills the hall, dramatic images of 250 years of a revolutionary story are projected on the floor, on a screen around the perimeter, even on our faces.
More evocative words and images show how the definition of citizenship expanded to include women and African Americans and how the constitution has shaped the United States and other countries around the world.
“The most powerful vision of human freedom ever expressed and it begins with three words…We the people.”
The show ends as it began, with a question, “What will we do with the freedom?”
It’s spine tingling stuff. And this is just the beginning of a totally engaging museum experience that successfully makes weighty subjects relevant and captivating for everyday people like ourselves.
A circular museum
As we walk into the circular interactive museum we realize we’ve been issued delegates’ passes rather than entrance tickets to underscore that constitutional democracy demands participation.
The gallery is laid out in three concentric circles wrapped in a glass wall etched with the text of today’s constitution. The outside pathway offers a panorama of American history through the lens of the constitution; the middle pathway has thematic interactive exhibits showing how the constitution works today; and the inside pathway encourages active engagement with the constitution.
I am fascinated with the constitution’s chronology evocatively told through video, text, images and voice. I learn that Americans have always been distrustful of central government and lobbied for a Bill of Rights in 1791, added to the Constitution as the first ten amendments. The first amendment documents, for instance, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
There are mini documentaries on the Kennedy assassination and the civil rights movement and how these events impacted the constitution’s interpretation. You can even walk into immersive environments such as a 1930s living room to hear a President Franklin Roosevelt fireside chat proposing the New Deal to increase the power of government to create jobs during the Depression.
Along the central pathway are various role-playing activities such as taking the oath of office as President and sitting in judges’ robes at the Supreme Court bench to decide landmark cases.
The American National Tree tells the stories of 100 ordinary people, such as African American Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman eventually resulting in a Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation on public transport.
We watch actors play scenarios addressing constitutional issues in the current news…including body searches at airports and gay marriage…to examine our beliefs about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
The Signer’s Hall
Lastly in the Signer’s Hall, we walk amongst life-size statues of the delegates debating the Constitution considering them now as individuals who made revolutionary choices forging the United States we see today. In the soaring entrance hall huge screens display today’s constitutional news. On the way in we scarcely notice. Now it is riveting.
Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell
The National Constitution Center is located in the heart of historic Philadelphia. Two other nearby museums are well worth the visit to gain a better understanding of America’s drive to become an independent democracy.
At the historic Independence Hall you can walk into the very room where delegates from the 13 original states struggled to find common ground to build a free nation. It was in the Assembly Room of this building that George Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. In the same room the design of the American flag was agreed upon in 1777, the Articles of Confederation were adopted in 1781, and the U. S. Constitution was drafted in 1787. Entry is by free ticket which can be obtained on the same day at the nearby Independence Visitor Center.
At the National Liberty Museum you see the Liberty Bell crafted in 1753 using metal from an original English bell, which had cracked. The Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly had a Bible verse placed on the bell: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof”(Leviticus 25:10). This statement has functioned as a touchstone for freedom fighters throughout the country. But the bell is just the beginning. With its many exhibits, artworks and stories of 2000 heroes, the museum is dedicated to preserving America’s heritage of freedom by fostering good character, civic responsibility and respect for all people.
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