on November 13, 2011
The US Constitution was given birth to in Philadelphia. This was perhaps unlucky, as it has always had to play second fiddle to the Declaration of Independence in this town. The building where it was signed is known as Independence Hall, not Constitution Hall, and it sits in Independence National Historical Park, not Constitution National Historical Park. This is perhaps understandable – patriots taking a principled stand against oppression makes a more understandable and heroic narrative than politicians sitting down to work out how to organise a government. But in awareness of this the National Constitution Center opened in 2003 to try and get a bit of love for Philadelphia’s other piece of paperwork…The aim is to make the Constitution approachable, relevant and, well, fun. Entry is into a large atrium. Overhead hung the flags of all fifty American states. Around the walls were boards with mock-ups of gossip magazine front pages: ‘We The PEOPLE’, promising such scandalous revelations as ‘Alex Hamilton’s Tragic Death’, Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Frenemies in High Places’ and ‘Hello Dolley’ about James Madison’s wife. Personally I did not think the Center itself was quite as fun as these promised – I would have been happier with the gossip!The entrance fee is $12 each – a not-inconsiderable sum for a museum with an educational bent (students get just $1 off the admission price). First off, visitors process into a circular auditorium for Freedom Rising. This is a theatrical presentation where an actor narrates the stories of independence and the search for a ‘more perfect union’ against an encircling multimedia backdrop. And it’s okay. Not as great at the Center seem to think, but okay, none-the-less.From there you are free to make your way around the exhibitions, analysing the different clauses and amendments of the constitution and seeing how the American government works in practice (or is supposed to). There are interactive sections – voting for one’s favourite president (FDR seemed worryingly low down the list!), voting to change America’s national bird from the bald eagle to the turkey and so on. I would say it was pitched at secondary school level. American secondary school that is. As a foreigner while I could find parts informative or entertainment I’m not sure I had the relevant background knowledge or emotional ties to the US Constitution to make this a must-see. And to my liberal European sensibilities the majority of comments other visitors had made in some discussion booths about current debates such as gun control or health care seemed to reinforce that my political beliefs and prejudices were very alien to those held by many American visitors.Any visitor to the National Constitution Center would, I think, need a keen interest in politics in general and an appreciation of American politics in particular. For politically engaged students from the US I can’t fault the place. For those from abroad who never got past series three of The West Wing it is a less essential visit. The entrance fee of $12 is surprisingly high (though one should point out that many of the other attractions along Independence Mall such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are free to even things out). Also I found that it shuts at 5pm, which seemed very early for a bright July afternoon. After we were ushered out we still had plenty of time to wander past Benjamin Franklin’s grave, stroll along the Delaware for a long time, stop for a drink and then amble back to our hotel before the sun even started to dip. I would not, unfortunately, consider the National Constitution Center a must-see on any visit to Philadelphia.
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