By Jim Ferri
Like many people who travel a lot, every once in a while I come across a place I wonder why I hadn’t heard more about it before. The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia turned out to be one of those places.
I only made passing mention of it in the post on Philadelphia two weeks ago due to space limitations. But it deserves more than just a passing mention because it is mesmerizing. Not long ago my wife and I spent three hours in the National Constitution Center and plan to go back, something I don’t do for many places I visit.
Located on Independence Mall, a visit begins with an excellent overview of the U.S. Constitution, aptly named “We the People.” It’s not a social-studies review, but a 15-minute production, with an actor in the center and a 360-degree screen all around you, which had the adults in the audience glued to every word when we were there.
Exiting that presentation you move into the National Constitution Center exhibition itself, and the first thing you come upon is The American National Tree. “All kinds of Americans have influenced our Constitutional history, for better and for worse, here are a few of their stories,” it tells you. “Choose an American face and hear an American story.”
I pressed the button and learned about a 13-year old who died of Aids; I pressed another and was absorbed by the story of a militant Suffragist who pushed Pres. Woodrow Wilson to support women’s right to vote. Another brought up former Congressman John Lewis, who said that “by sitting down these young people were standing up.” It also asks whom you would add and allows you to suggest names in a suggestion box.
On the wall all around me, the original Constitution was annotated with all the changes made over the years by different amendments. Nearby in the Center, the faces in a photo of a group taking the pledge of citizenship at Boston’s Faneuil Hall moved me; answering 15 of the 100 typical questions asked of aspiring American citizens, listed below the photo, was both fascinating and embarrassing.
I was absorbed by the many small presentations. “Everything that Washington does sets a precedent”…; “our young democracy passed a crucial test today. Thomas Jefferson, a Republican…”; “Tuesday, March 2, 1824 – (Chief Justice) Marshall turned the high court into a force to be reckoned with…”; on and on it went, right up to the present day.
The numerous presentations are packed with short and powerful audio-visuals, some provided by the History Channel, others by corporations, and show the molding of the nation, airing both its glory and its dirty linen. You are saddened by photos of the Civil War, of slavery, of different scenes of turmoil and destruction, but you feel pride as you watch the video of all the presidents since Roosevelt taking the oath in front of the crowd as “Hail to the Chief” is played and cannons boom in the distance.
I watched one of a 6th grade class, which was studying the president and the constitution, being asked “if you could ask the president one question what would it be?” Another video, near large-scale models of the US capitol, Supreme Court, and the White House, explained the importance of each building, and its relevance to our form of government.
Most popular seemed to be the exhibits that provided insights into the minutia of government. An exhibit on the Supreme Court, for example, asked “Why do they wear black robes?”, explaining John Marshall started the tradition since he thought that uniform, simple black robes were more suitable for a democratic nation than the elaborate red robes worn at the time by British judges.
Nearby, a few robes hang on hooks. “Try one on for yourself,” says the sign. “To be a Supreme Court Justice you need a distinguished legal career, a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. But today you can try on a robe, sit at the bench and consider some cases.” At this Center you can’t help but mesmerized.
At the “Supreme Court bench” touchscreen monitors provide more information about the Court as guardian of the Constitution, as well as background on several famous cases.
It’s a place that compels you to think. “Terror attacks compel us to ask how we can be safe and live free.” States an exhibit on 9/11. Another asks, “What do your taxes buy?” Touch the keyboard and it shows you where your tax money goes according to your salary, complete with quips from Groucho Marx.
An exhibit on modern-day issues asks such questions as “is healthcare reform Constitutional?”; “Should the government be able to ban the sale of violent video games to kids?”; and “Divided we stand – is divided government good or bad for the country?”
Short narratives by each question include arguments both for and against, all set beneath quotes by famous Americans. “Public opinion sets bounds for every government…”, says a quote by James Madison over the healthcare question. Over video mayhem, a quote from Lincoln: “Public opinion in this country is everything.”
Post-it notes and pencils are provided to let you jot down your opinion about these different issues and post it on the wall. According to the Center its staff compiles the notes to track public opinion.
The only area where you’re permitted to take photos is in Signers’ Hall which you past through as you exit the exhibit. It contains 42 life-sized bronze statues of the 39 signers and the three dissenters, and is mesmerizing since 41 of the statures were meticulously designed based historical portraits and written description. The one exception, Jacob Broom, has his face partially covered since no detailed description could be found.
There are three things you notice in the Hall. One is how tall Washington is compared to the other signers, and how shiny the head of the seated Ben Franklin is from so many people rubbing it. The third is a large book containing a copy of the Constitution, which visitors can choose to sign or dissent.
The entire center is fascinating and also very quiet, almost like an art museum, with the only noise coming from the videos and exhibits, or an occasional “look at this!” from one of your fellow visitors.
If you go:
The National Constitution Center
525 Arch Street | Independence Mall
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Tel: (215) 409-6600
Open every day, except Thanksgiving and Christmas
Weekdays 9:30am-5pm; Sat 9:30am-6pm; Sun 12pm-5pm