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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the July 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For the 4th, Let Freedom Ring
Mickey Mouse is enshrined in the National Constitution
Center. So is Muhammed Ali. And so is Larry Flynt.
Yes indeed. The spanking new building that’s been merely a vision
since it was created by the Constitution Heritage Act in 1988 has
turned into a reality, and the sprawling limestone and granite structure
at Sixth and Arch streets in Philadelphia is full of surprises. If
you think it’s just a repository for dusty old documents, you might
want to head on over to the building designed by Pei Cobb Freed &
Partners, one the nation’s most prestigious architectural firms, to
remind us all that the Constitution is a living document, and one
that touches all our lives.
Slated to open on Friday. July 4, this $185 million, 160,000 square
foot, private nonprofit museum will offer everything from tours and
lectures to performances and ongoing special events.
As work crews struggled to finish the stately building, media tours
were conducted recently under strict guidelines: work boots, hard
hats, and steady nerves to endure the constant sound of construction.
The end result promises to be a remarkable living history museum where
interactive exhibits coexist with grand bronzes of the signers of
The museum’s unusual circular design allows visitors to roam through
a grand entrance hall with a vaulted ceiling, experience an introductory
17-minute show in the Center’s Kimmel Theater that combines a live
performance with multi-media, and then wander through a permanent
exhibit called the American Experience, which dramatically emphasizes
the words of the Constitution itself. The document is printed out
on a 450-foot long glass wall above the exhibit space, a constant
reminder of what this Center is all about.
If it sounds like sensory overload, it is. But in the best sense.
"The structure and its surroundings were designed to have people
feel swept up and involved in the space," explains Liz Barszczewski,
public relations manager for the Center and tour guide to pre-opening
visitors over the last several weeks.
"Even the expansive windows become a metaphor for the openness
of government, and for uniting those inside and outside the building
so that no one remains passive and uninvolved," she explains.
The heart and soul of the Center is the American Experience space
where a National "Family Tree" contains "branches"
that tell the story of our expansive American family — and our
constitutional rights — through individual profiles of the famous
and not-so-famous. Here’s the spot where Mickey Mouse coexists with
Larry Flynt for important reasons: Both have been involved in groundbreaking
legal decisions. In Mickey’s case, the issue was copyright protection.
Flynt’s concerned free speech and First Amendment issues.
"The idea of dissent is one of our hallmarks, and we don’t expect
everyone to agree with the choices we’ve made for the first 100 on
our tree," said Barszczewski, noting that the people on the tree
will change periodically. Suggestions from the public about who belongs
on the Family Tree are welcome.
Visitors can "participate" in government with
all the American Experience’s interactive features:
Taking the Presidential oath of office on the steps of the
Capitol, thanks to video technology
Donning the robes of a Supreme Court Justice
Voting for their favorite U.S. President — and seeing
the results in a constant tally.
Hall, where 42 life-sized bronze figures represent the 39 men who
signed the Constitution — and the three who dissented. Gathering
information on the signers and dissenters wasn’t always easy, according
"We had the greatest difficulty with signer Jacob Broome of Delaware.
We could find absolutely nothing about him — no descriptions,
no medical records, no drawings. So the designers gave him the average
height and weight of the period and have him covering his face with
his hand since we know so little about his looks."
In the Signers’ Hall, visitors are encouraged to sign their own names
to a replica of today’s Constitution in special parchment books or
to note their dissent and outline their concerns about the words and
ideas in the Constitution. "Dissent is still alive and well in
this country and at the National Constitution Center," said Barszczewski.
"It’s actually very American."
As visitors leave Signers’ Hall, they are treated to a spectacular
straight-shot view of Independence Hall, the Center’s close neighbor.
A nearby Citizens’ Cafe allows visitors to E-mail their congressmen
and watch Congressional issues unfold on a giant screen.
The Center’s "amenities" include the full-service Delegates’
Restaurant, which is open for breakfast and lunch and features an
eclectic menu and partial self-service; a Family Theater where parents
and children can see the Bill of Rights in a lighthearted Top Ten
format complete with music and animation; and a parking garage under
the building. The Center is also available for private parties and
functions and is already accepting reservations for weddings.
With all there is much to see and do, the typical visitor can plan
to spend about one and a half hours touring the Center. However, if
that visitor were participate fully in every interactive exhibit and
see every artifact and item, the visit would stretch to over 17 hours.
"Our hope," said Barszczewski, "is that people come back
again and again. Just as laws and governments change, so will our
short-term exhibits. And we’ve left plenty of space for any new amendments
to the Constitution because we understand even more now that it’s
definitely a living document."
Philadelphia. 215-409-6600. www.constitutioncenter.org Open
9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $6, $5 for seniors 62 and
over and children aged 4-12. Children under 4 are admitted free. The
Center is handicapped accessible.
The doors to the National Constitution Center swing
open on Friday, July 4, with opening events continuing through July
10. A dedication ceremony will take place at 9 a.m. on July 4, in
conjunction with Philadelphia’s annual Independence Day Celebration.
Mayor John Street will present the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to Supreme
Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. President George Bush is expected
to officially open the building. The Philadelphia Orchestra will provide
the background music for a themed dramatic reading.
The Center will be open to the public on July 4 from 1 to 8:30 p.m.
On Friday and Saturday, July 5 and 6, it will be open from 9:30 p.m.
to 8:30 p.m. Regular hours, starting Monday July 7, are 9:30 a.m.
to 5 p.m. Tickets for opening weekend are available on a first-come,
first-served basis by phone at 215-409-6600 or online at www.constitutioncenter.org,
and a limited number will be available at the door.
From July 4 to July 6, the Center will present special performances
including plays, magicians, storytellers, and period crafts and games
On Wednesday, July 9, at 5 p.m., a segment of National Public Radio’s
"Justice Talking" will be taped at the Center. The topic is
"U.S. Supreme Court Review from Left to Right." The event
is free to the public, but reservations are required (215-898-7757).
On Thursday, July 10, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the American Bar Association’s
Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities will sponsor a program
in the Center’s Kirby Auditorium. The topic is "The Bill of Rights
in a Time of Crisis." There is limited free public seating (215-923-0004).
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