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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.

Liberty Museum

Every 90 minutes, a child in America is murdered. Every

two days, we lose the equivalent of a classroom of students to violent

death in this nation.

Against those grim statistics, the mission of a museum in Philadelphia

seems more urgent than ever. The National Liberty Museum, just a short

hop from Independence Hall and the new National Constitution Center

in downtown Philadelphia, is dedicated to combating violence and erasing

bigotry and prejudice while it celebrates America’s heritage of freedom.

But if others seem overwhelmed at the scope and breadth of that mission,

the creator of this visually stunning addition to Philadelphia’s most

historic square mile is unfazed. Irvin Borowsky has held fast to the

dream of such a museum for over a decade. "Our intention is to

get the message across to this nation that there is no superior or

inferior religion, no superior or inferior race," he says. "There

is the greatest opportunity for all in this God-designed nation."

Borowsky has also emphasized that while the National Liberty Museum

is clearly aimed to appeal to all age groups, its message and meaning

are particularly important to the young: "We want them to know

that heroism is not a rare quality that only a limited few possess,

but rather something we can all achieve."

The son of Polish immigrants, he founded the North American Publishing

Company, which publishes 24 national magazines, including the 45-year-old

Printing Impressions, and has produced more than 40 books and journals,

including "The Dead Sea Scrolls" and "Artists Confronting

the Inconceivable." He and his wife, Laurie Wagman, founder of

American Theater Arts for Youth, have six children and 14 grandchildren.

Among his many philanthropic interests are the American Interfaith

Institute and the World Alliance of Interfaith Organizations, both

dedicated to fostering tolerance among organized religions. Creating

the downtown museum, he explained, is the culmination and cornerstone

of all of his efforts to promote understanding.

Visitors will feel the museum’s strong sense of mission right at the

front door, where a "peace portal" in the form of an overhead

canopy fashioned of multi-colored glass suggests the journey to freedom

made by so many millions of immigrants. The portal also introduces

the glass metaphor which is used throughout the museum to suggest

that liberty, like glass, is fragile. Carrying the metaphor throughout

the museum are over 100 glass art objects and sculptures, including

a striking Dale Chihuly 20-foot glass chandelier called "Flame

of Liberty," which soars over two floors and is meant to stand

as a reminder of the eternal quest for freedom.

Built at the former site of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, the

museum includes 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, a gift shop,

an education center, and even an in-house theater. Exhibit areas examine

themes like freedom, world heroes and their homelands, conflict resolution,

exceptional people with physical challenges, and the museum’s newest

photographic display, "Heroes of September 11." Commenting

on the 9/11 exhibit, the museum’s Executive Vice President and Chief

Operating Officer, Gwen Borowsky, a professional educator and daughter

of the founder, notes that the heroes display, "Those Who Answered

The Call," has been particularly powerful to visitors.

"After the September 11 attacks, we knew that the men and women

who died performing rescue work belonged in our galleries," said

Borowsky. "The exhibit has had a dramatic impact on our visitors

and those taking our educational tours, continued Borowsky. "In

particular, young people who are starting to learn the difference

between heroes and celebrities strongly relate and see the notion

of heroism and democracy in an accessible light."

Decidedly user-friendly, the Liberty Museum features many interactive

exhibits. For example, touch screens in the reception area tell the

stories of 200 outstanding Americans, from Marian Anderson to Jackie

Robinson and Jonas Salk, and voting machines allow youngsters to vote

on important issues such as capital punishment and gun control.

Among the most striking exhibits:

"*"A replica of the tiny prison cell that housed Nelson Mandela.

"*"A replica of Anne Frank’s attic hideaway.

"*"Dramatic color photographs of challenged American achievers

like Ray Charles, Christopher Reeve, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and

Ted Kennedy, Jr.

"*"A reconstruction of the tiny underground hole that Felix

Zandman, now a Philadelphia area industrialist, shared with four others

for a year during the Holocaust. Zandman’s voice narrates not just

the tale of his life underground at age 15, but also of the Catholic

farmers who saved five lives in Poland. "It was heroism of the

highest order," suggests Zandman in a recorded message at the

exhibit.

Perhaps the most frequently visited spot at the Liberty Museum

is the unique "Jellybean People" installation on the second

floor, a life-size sculpture of two children created by artist Sandy

Skoglund entirely of jellybeans. The sculpture serves as a reminder

that while we may look different on the outside, we are linked by

our common humanity.

Against the exhibit’s back wall visitors can see hundreds of multi-colored

butterflies and the legend, "Think butterflies are beautiful?

Imagine how they’d look if they were all exactly the same."

Much of the museum’s second level, designed primarily for children,

illustrates that hatred and violence are the enemies of freedom. One

obvious reminder: a paper shredder that destroys words of hurt and

insult, which visitors can suggest.

In another area of this level is a graphic photograph of the emergency

room of Jefferson Hospital with a gunshot victim lying on the table.

It’s hard to miss the point that violence is a messy, brutal business.

And with 2,000 youngsters a month passing through the galleries and

conversing with trained docents about school shootings and the glamorization

of violence in film and TV, the impact is mighty, according to Borowsky.

It’s a tall order, but the National Liberty Museum is pitting hate

and prejudice against heroism, decency and courage. "Our galleries

contain the stories of more than 1,000 heroes throughout the world

who sought to advance the ideals of freedom and liberty," says

Borowsky. "They run the gamut from Mother Teresa to unknown `ordinary’

citizens who exhibit extraordinary courage."

Above all, the glass metaphor makes a strong statement. "For us,

glass represents liberty — beautiful and strong, yet easily broken

and impossible to truly fix."

— Sally Friedman

National Liberty Museum, 321 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.

215-925-2800; fax, 215-925-3800, www.libertymuseum.org. Open

Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission $5, $4 for seniors,

$3 for students. Children accompanied by parents are free. The museum

will be open throughout the July 4th weekend.


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