We The People
Metropolis, November 2003
There is no apprising of the constitution of Iroquois Nations, as if the U.S. version sprang, fully realized, from the minds of a handful of white men.
The first impression you get when you enter the new National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is one of blinding whiteness. The limestone building, designed by Henry N. Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, looks like a pile of cantilevered white slabs at the northern end of Independence Mall. Its spectacular white lobby, shaped like a giant conch, is crowned by a circular balcony of elegant proportions.
Nothing impedes the natural light that streams through the 40-foot-high glass walls, not even a shadow. In the middle of this vast expanse, the circular information desk looks like a hockey puck on the slick surface of an ice-skating rink.
Filled with reverence, you stop. All of this whiteness is a subtext. You are about to proceed into an environment that honors the 39 white men who signed the Constitution.
The individuals who conceptualized and designed the 160,000-square-foot building are probably not aware of the metaphor they have created. In fact, their "We the People" theme, broadcast on the facade of the building in large letters, is meant to make everyone feel included. Inside, great attention is given to accommodating the needs of visitors of all ages, creeds, national origins, and physical aptitudes.
Exhibits are designed to entertain and edify school children as well as scholars, retired citizens as well as foreign visitors Democrats as well as Republicans. But the NCC’s designers faced an ironic challenge. Even though the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments have brought the Constitution up to date, the original document, which visitors are encouraged to endorse by recording their signature electronically, is exclusionary by modern standards.
In the mind of exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum, such points of debate were a central theme. Known for interpretive exhibition designs that include the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Rose Center for the New York Museum of Natural History, Appelbaum went out of his way to create an experience that’s anything but sedate.
Appelbaum has made a career out of explaining complex meta-narratives while respecting the sensibilities and objectives of his clients. In the last 25 years, his 70-person office, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, has handled more than 150 commissions from institutions that focus primarily on social, cultural, and natural history. The firm’s current list of projects include the Clinton Library, the Museum of Diplomacy at the State Department, and the U.S. Capitol’s Visitor Center, not to mention ongoing projects for governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, and even China.
"If people get the idea that the Constitution is a living process of dialogue and compromise," Appelbaum says, "that alone is an important lesson."
Education and propaganda
Unfortunately, this noble intention doesn’t come through. But why?
For the National Constitution Center to have credibility as a national monument, it had to boast a first-class "museum experience." But part of the problem was that the exhibition space was only piece of a larger package. Originally, the center was about propaganda, not education. A non-profit organization established by the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 signed by Ronald Reagan toward the end of the Cold War, it had, over the years, developed a number of successful programs designed to promote the U.S. Constitution as a model and an inspiration for emerging democracies.
In the end, only a mere 25,000 square feet of the new facility, which opened on July 4, 2003, is a museum whose ambition is to educate the public. The remaining 135,000 square feet house facilities designed to accomodate events with a political agenda. They include an auditorium, classrooms, office space, and a resource center with a substantial schedule of special events, temporary exhibits, and scholarly lectures. There is also a large cafeteria, a gift shop, a rooftop restaurant with a spectacular view of Independence Hall, and of course the imposing lobby. A resonant emptiness during the day, it becomes a prestigious venue for black-tie fund raisers at night.
How do you build a popular exhibition with broad entertaining appeal while promoting predictable, government-approved patriotic values? Pulling it off was a delicate mission. Appelbaum followed a step-by-step process designed to make learning inseparable from emotional engagement. He, Cobb, and their respective staffs spent six months listening to the various stakeholders in the project: politicians, of course, but also lawyers, Supreme Court justices, scholars, educators, tourism experts, chamber of commerce representatives, and audiences from all over the country.
In the meantime, the NCC was acquiring first editions of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (the hand-written originals are kept in the Library of Congress), plus a handful of objects of minor historical interest, like the break-in tools used by the burglars of Watergate FDR1s leg braces, Lincoln’s ink well, and the pen LBJ used to sign the Civil Rights Act.
Somewhere along the way, after many thousands of hours of research and inquiries, a chauvinistic sense of mission probably took over. The concept for the exhibit experience evolved from informative to transformative, and the National Constitution Center veered dangerously close to becoming the National Indoctrination Center.
"We wanted to wrap together experientially some of the emotions that get tied up in patriotic thinking," Appelbaum says of the jingoistic tone to the "Freedom Rising" multimedia presentation, a 17-minute introductory film presented by a live narrator in a round theater the size and shape of an old-fashioned circus tent.
No light or sound effects were spared to achieve the desired emotional tone. Created by Donna Laura Production, a Louisville firm that often collaborates with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the show combines the earnestness of a Frank Capra movie with tried-and-true clichés such as flags rippling, drums beating, crowds cheering, soldiers marching, and waves crashing.
"We figured that if people could get their emotions out early," Appelbaum says candidly, "they’d be able to focus on what the Constitution really is: a couple of written pages on ideas about how to govern."
But whether or not total immersion into patriotic themes is the best preparation for understanding the stern language of the Constitution is a matter of opinion. While most visitors on a recent tour seemed to enjoy the show, others looked relieved when it was over and they were ushered into the main exhibit hall.
A circular gallery that rings the theater, the hall has no natural light (to protect the few archival artifacts from fading), yet the initial impression is that of an open landscape, a large sculpture garden filled with strange-looking objects. A cacophony of overlapping sound bites welcomes you as you step forward. Depending on where you stand, you hear in turn soothing voices, raucous debates, applause, or the solemn accents of invisible presidential speakers. The text of the Constitution is etched on large panels of blue glass that hang overhead along the outer wall of the circular gallery. Lit from behind, the words project a cool glow on the debate below.
A medley of shapes and sounds at first glance, "The American Experience" exhibition is in fact laid out as three concentric rings, each one taking a different pedagogical approach.
The first ring, against the wall under the text of the Constitution, is a series of conventional displays arranged in clockwise fashion. Cases containing artifacts and documents, as well as interactive kiosks, retrace the constitutional history of the United States from 1765 to the present day. Yet, shockingly, there is no reference to constitutions before that date, no passing remark about Aristotle, no allusion to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The Articles of the Confederacy are barely mentioned, and there is no apprising of the contribution of Iroquois Nations, even though there is plenty of evidence that Benjamin Franklin was familiar with the Native Americans’ own constitution.
You get the impression that the U.S. version sprang, fully realized, from the minds of a handful of white men.
A playground atmosphere
The next layer of narrative is located in the middle ring of the gallery. It is a kid-friendly zone that presents ideas as a series of free-standing exhibits, part playground structures, part video games. Focusing on the words of the Preamble, it uses 3-D metaphors to engage the imagination of the visitors.
"We the People," for instance, is a tree-like tower covered with portraits of significant Americans, their detailed biography accessible on monitors at the base of the structure.
"Of the United States" is a row of voting booths in which you can select your favorite president.
"In Order to form a more perfect Union" is a video setup where visitors are instructed to raise their hand and repeat the Presidential Oath of Office.
While parents hesitate before pushing buttons and touching interactive screens, their children are eager to figure out how each exhibit works, if not what it says. Quick to get the drift, they jump around from place to place. One exhibit — a monumental three-prong seesaw holding a scale models of the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court — illustrates the balance of power between Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, engineering difficulties prevented the seesaw from actually working, a disturbing analogy for the present political trend.
In the innermost ring of narrative, along the wall of the theater, benches invite you to sit down, rest, reflect, and read the text of the Constitution visible overhead across the wide aisle. This area also features bulletin boards where people are encouraged to express their views on specific issues by tacking up yellow notes with their comments.
Responding to the question "What does it mean to be American?" for instance, a six-year-old scrawled this note: "It means to be happy that you are black." To "Tell us, has the U.S. established justice?" an adult responded with "No, our system is biased toward the rich." There are days when people post so many notes that by early afternoon there is no room left on the bulletin boards.
Altogether there are 17 hours of interactive video programming in the exhibit hall, yet the posted notes are by far its most popular feature. Little kids in pigtails or corn rows line up, pencils in hand, for a chance to express their opinion.
This doesn’t surprise Appelbaum. "Our goal was not just to provide an experience," he says. "We also wanted that experience to be reconverted into language." Born into language, the Constitution is presented in such a way as to generate more language. But are the voices of the people heard in this solemn environment? Appelbaum is vague: "We are collecting the notes. All of it will eventually be printed in a newspaper that will be given to visitors." If nothing else, the scribbled comments will one day be great research material for some doctoral thesis.
The photo op
Leaving the noisy atmosphere of the main exhibit hall, visitors proceed into the Signers’ Hall, where they mingle freely among statues of the delegates who signed the Constitution. A tableau vivant of realistic life-size bronze sculptures, the scene replicates the exact setup of the event. To achieve this, three paintings capturing the famous moment were analyzed by a computer to establish where everyone stood in the room. Modern-day actors were hired and dressed in period costumes to portray each man.
As a result, the bronze replicas are as life-like as Madame Tusseau wax figures, yet their metal finish gives them historical authenticity. "We absolutely knew people would want to be photographed in this room," Appelbaum explains. "We wanted visitors to take back with them a visual record of the experience, one that would find its place in their family album."
People strike poses for the camera next to Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. But the most sought-after celebrity is George Washington, who cuts a dashing figure in his double-breasted bronze redingote. "He is so tall and handsome, no wonder he got elected president," remarks an African-American visitor, echoing the candid tone of the posted comments.
We the people, we tell it like it is. We are an opinionated bunch. The main accomplishment of the NCC’s exhibition is to provide a forum where we can voice our unabashed and humble opinions. But is anyone listening? Is anyone seizing this opportunity to figure out why less than half of the voting-age population in this country bothers to vote on election days? Or is the exhibition just a substitute for real-life democracy?
On your way out, you can’t help but wonder whether the awe-inspiring white lobby is a symbol of the gap that separates We the People from the appointed guardians of our Constitution.
1/6 - The National Constitution Center is a "museum experience" with a political agenda
2/6 - "Blinding whitness" is the theme for this lesson in American history
3/6 - The American Constitution is presented as a "living process"
4/6 - Realistic life-size bronzes of the signers of the Constitution
5/6 - A multimedia presentation evokes patriotic emotions
6/6 - The facade of the NCC, designed by Henry N. Cobb