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Born on the Fourth of July: Inside the New National Constitution Center

by Daniel A. Cirucci

Spring 2003, Vol. 66, No. 1

The United States Constitution is a legal and political masterwork. As the framework for government of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, its significance and importance are as self-evident as the great truths proclaimed in its sister document, the Declaration of Independence. The bad news is that the very people whose rights are governed by that Constitution are woefully uninformed not only about the document, but about the very governmental system it creates.

In fact, a 1997 National Constitution Center (NCC) poll found that only five percent of Americans could correctly answer ten rudimentary questions about the Constitution. The survey found that:
  • More than half of those polled do not know the number of U.S. senators;
  • Only six percent can name all four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment;
  • One out of six believe that the Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation; and
  • Eighty-four percent incorrectly believe that the Constitution states that “all men are equal.”

And among young people the lack of knowledge is even more startling. An NCC national survey released in 1998 showed that when asked, more American teenagers:

  • Could name three of the Three Stooges than could name the three branches of government (59 percent to 41 percent);
  • Knew the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than knew the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (94.7 percent to 2.2 percent);
  • Knew which city has the zip code “90210” than the city in which the U.S. Constitution was written (75 percent to 25 percent); and
  • Knew the star of the motion picture “Titanic” than knew the Vice President of the United States (90 percent to 74 percent).

The good news is that, because of efforts by political, civic and philanthropic leaders in Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center will open July 4, 2003 and will serve as the nation’s leading source for education about the masterpiece created by Madison and Hamilton, et al. The NCC promises that guests will “enter as a visitor” and “leave as a citizen.” In these days of conflict and struggle, no museum could have a prouder purpose. But it’s more than a museum. The Center is described as an interactive experience with more than 67,000 square feet of exhibit space, an in-the-round multi-media theatre and a dramatic Signers’ Hall featuring forty-two life-size representations of the thirty-nine men who signed the Constitution as well as the three who dissented. And that’s just the beginning.

The people behind the NCC promise us that nothing about the new edifice will resemble a traditional museum. In fact, the experience will be different from the moment when visitors arrive and receive a Delegate’s Pass instead of a ticket. The Pass will start them on their journey through DeVos Hall where The Story of We the People begins to unfold. After being transported back into the late 1700s visitors will see the story of the Constitution spring to life in the Kimmel Theater’s “Freedom Rising,” a twelve-minute show combining a live actor, multi-media elements and film projection—all designed to sweep the audience through more than 200 years of American history.

Then it’s on to The American Experience, with more than 100 interactive components side-by-side with vivid artifacts so that everything can be put into historical context. Visitors will be encircled by the Constitution etched on a sixteen-foot-high glass wall that is 450 feet long and eight feet above their heads.

Lest all of this be too austere, in the Family Theater visitors will get a humorous break with jokes, special effects, animation, an original musical score and props built around the principles of the Bill of Rights. The American Experience also features a huge visual Family Tree on which visitors can see and hear the story of 100 different Americans. You’ll even be able to cast your vote for your favorite President of all time, and the votes will be continuously updated so that you can watch your vote count.

While the NCC boasts that the Center will be vibrantly engaging, it won’t be all fun and games. In “A Common Defense” the Center will honor the men and women who have fought and died for the Constitution with flags from the various branches of the military, information about each service branch and an accounting of all the deaths in the wars that have been fought. Large video screens will depict a constantly changing soldier—from Revolutionary times to the present—marching in front of Arlington Cemetery.

The whole NCC experience will culminate in Signers’ Hall, where visitors may affirm their constitutional beliefs and sign their names to the Constitution in a custom-made signing book, or they can sign as dissenters and explain why they disagree with the Constitution’s principles. The signing books will be permanently displayed in Signers’ Hall so visitors will be able to return in years to come and find where they signed their names. As visitors leave Signers’ Hall they will be greeted with a direct and dramatic view of Independence Hall through a forty-foot-high shimmering wall of glass. There will be no way to avoid the historic events of September 1787. The real and the imaginary will, hopefully, all come together as guests gaze at the vista of our nation’s founding.

Since the NCC proclaims that everyone will “enter as a visitor” and “leave as a citizen,” all guests will have an opportunity to actively exercise their citizenship in the Participation Café where they can e-mail their congresspersons, participate in discussions about their experience or watch up-to-the-minute Constitutional issues unfold on a giant television screen.

And even if you don’t visit the NCC in person, you can still participate. The NCC’s outreach initiative will connect millions of people through its Annenberg Center for Education and Outreach, which will offer debates and discussions, a study center, educational materials and a scholars-in-residence program. Already, the NCC’s Web site (www.constitutioncenter.org) serves as a resource for teachers, students and people who are interested in constitutional history and issues. The site is logging more than 750,000 hits each month.

Admittedly, a walk through the NCC can seem a bit overwhelming, and a true scholar might appear to be taken aback by all the bells and whistles. But this is no Disneyesque patiche. Engaging new generations of visitors is serious business, and the people behind the NCC bring real gravitas to their jobs. Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, led by founding partner Henry N. “Harry” Cobb, is the principal architect for the Center, and Ralph Appelbaum, president of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, has designed the NCC’s visitor experience and exhibition halls.

Appelbaum won international acclaim for the design of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and has also designed the Newseum in Arlington, Virginia, and the Museum of African American History in Detroit.

Cobb was the architect for Philadelphia’s Commerce Square, and his firm designed the widely heralded expansion of the Grand Louvre in Paris and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Pei Cobb was also the architect for the Holocaust Museum.

NCC president and CEO Joseph M. Torsella was ecstatic when he announced the impressive design team, predicting that the team’s combined “creative genius” will produce a “national treasure and a powerful legacy for generations to come.” Cobb says his approach to the NCC stresses “the art of place making—an art embodying, above all else, a concern for the quality of public space and public life.” Appelbaum says he hopes to create a visitor experience that “will revive wonder at our American enterprise—this adventure of personal expression and political debate which is our country, this commitment to negotiating a way to be ourselves together, while beckoning more and more of our neighbors to join the dialogue.”

The whole idea of the National Constitution Center is to have people exercise their freedoms while they’re learning about them. The aim is to bring the principles of a 215-year-old document to life in everyday, meaningful terms that ordinary people can understand. And when you consider how little is known about the Constitution this goal has probably never been more important.

There is little question that the NCC has its work cut out for it. It must be as Harry Cobb describes it: “A place for visitors, but not just a tourist attraction; a place for exhibitions, but not just a museum; a place for scholars, but not just a study center; a place for discussion and debate, but not just an auditorium; a place for public gatherings, but not just a reception hall.”

Beginning on July 4, 2003 it will endeavor to be all of those things and more.

NCC Fast Facts
  • Opens: July 4, 2003
  • Location: 525 Arch St., Philadelphia
  • Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., 7 days a week (closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas)
  • Admission: $5 Adults; $4 Children (12 and under) and Seniors; $3 Groups of 20 or more; Children under 3 are free
  • Underground parking onsite
  • Wheelchair accessible
  • Kimmel Theater seats 350
  • 225-seat glass-enclosed Restaurant
  • Lunchroom for 350 children
  • 100 interactive and multi-media exhibits
  • 42 life-size bronze statues of Constitution framers in Signers’ Hall
  • 160,000 sq. ft. of public space
  • 67,785 sq. ft. of exhibit space
  • 85,000 sq. ft. of Indiana limestone
  • 10,000 sq. ft. of glass in a curtain wall 270 ft. wide and 40 ft. tall
  • 2.6 million lbs. of steel
  • 500,000 cubic ft. of concrete
  • Group Sales: (215) 717-3593 or groupsales@constitutioncenter.org
  • Facility Rental: Seats up to 1,100 for receptions, 600 for inside dining.

Bar Partnership
The Philadelphia Bar Association is designated a Key Partner in all plans and activities related to the Grand Opening of the National Constitution Center. In that capacity, the Association is leading the way toward a successful debut period surrounding the official July 4 opening of the Center. Events will begin with the June 21 anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution and continue through July 11. Tours, fireworks, street festivals and reenactments are all part of the celebration.

In what will be the first event of its kind at the Center, the Philadelphia Bar Association and WHYY will sponsor a panel program focusing on “The First Amendment in the 21st Century.” This program, set for Tuesday, July 8 at 5 p.m., will touch upon key First Amendment issues such as the right to privacy in the face of national security concerns, Internet pornography, separation of church and state, and free speech in the aftermath of September 11.

“Power of an Hour”

A significant aspect of the National Constitution Center’s private fund-raising effort is its campaign within the legal profession, since it is especially fitting for the legal profession to support the NCC. A key element of this campaign is the National Power of an Hour Initiative. This initiative asks each lawyer to contribute to the NCC an amount at least equal to his or her hourly billable rate or assumed rate. Lawyers also are given the opportunity to make larger contributions and be specially recognized for those contributions. The NCC’s total fund-raising goal is $185 million: $103 million from governmental sources and $82 million from private sources. All of the anticipated governmental funding is in place, with the National Power of an Hour Initiative supporting the substantial progress that has been made in private sector fund-raising efforts. For more information on Power of an Hour, contact the National Constitution Center at membership@constitutioncenter.org or 215-923-0004.