National Constitution Center

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Owen Lipsett on July 4, 2005

This superb museum opened on July 4, 2004, within sight of Independence Hall, where the United States Constitution, the world’s oldest (not including U.S. state constitutions), was signed in 1787. It presents the history of the American Constitution as well as exploring its legacy. If this description seems a bit broad, that’s deliberate, as the aptly named "Center" isn’t simply a museum in the conventional sense of the word but rather an interactive facility that hosts talks, scholars, and activities, as well as literally taking its show on the road. And a show it is, as the Center’s exhibitions primarily rely on both interactive and multimedia presentations, which serve to make what could otherwise be highly abstract concepts and seemingly dull documents extremely approachable.

The museum has an incredibly spacious feel throughout, beginning with the large lobby you pass through to buy tickets or pick up ones you’ve purchased in advance. Admission is timed at half-hour increments, because it begins with the interactive "Freedom Rising" show. Any waiting time you have is actually an opportunity in disguise to visit the "Hall of Signers" which features life-sized bronze statues of the Constitution’s signers. The two most notable absentees are Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence (who approved of the document but was serving as Minister to France at the time), and George Mason, the so-called "Father of the Bill of Rights." Mason refused to sign the Constitution because it did not contain an enumeration of personal freedoms (the so-called Bill of Rights which was added in 1791) or establish a date to abolish slavery (unfortunately, this did not happen until the Constitution’s 13th Amendment in 1865).

I personally find "Freedom Rising," whose live narrator oversimplifies various issues amid an admittedly impressive interactive display, a bit over the top, but given the reactions of the rest of the audience, I have reason to suspect I may be a curmudgeonly minority of one. In any case, try to arrive well before your ticket time as there tends to be a line and you’re best off taking one of the seats near the top to allow yourself an easy exit into the superb main exhibition galleries. Don’t worry too much if you can’t – every seat has a great view and they’re very comfortable!

The Center’s permanent exhibitions don’t shy away from difficult issues. They primarily consist of interactive displays (the Center’s website claims that it has "17 hours of interactive content") accompanied by contemporary historical artifacts. These enable you to explore any issue in whatever depth suits you, making it an absolute joy to visit whether your level of expertise is that of a child or one of the center’s resident scholars. This makes it an ideal family activity, and given the heat of Philadelphia’s summers and its proximity to Independence Hall National Historic Park, one that I suspect will continue to grow more ever popular, as well it should!

Further information:

National Constitution Center
525 Arch Street on Independence Mall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19106
(215) 409-6600

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