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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.
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
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
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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