The National Constitution Center is a museum devoted to the history and legacy of the US Constitution. It educates visitors on the meaning of the Constitution through displays and interactive exhibits.
The US Constitution
After the Treaty of Paris in 1783 officially ended the American Revolutionary War, the former British colonies each went their own way and the central government of the fledgling nation could assert little control. Many states even refused to pay taxes and ignored federal agreements. In February 1787 a convention of state delegates was held in Philadelphia to draft a constitution that would strengthen the weak government so it could act as a ‘proper nation’.
The Constitution was influenced by British law and incorporated ideas from earlier democracies, in particular the Roman Republic, which was based on parliamentary representation as opposed to the direct democracy of ancient Athens.
The Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787. It went into effect the following year even as it was only ratified by all thirteen states in May 1790.
The original constitution defined the three branches of government (executive, legislature and judiciary) as well as the relation between the states and the central government. In 1797 a series of amendments were added. Known as the Bill of Rights and based on the British Bill of Rights of 1689, they were meant to protect the freedom and rights of the individual. The Constitution and Bill of Rights are still in force today and form the basis of the US government.
Establishment of the Museum
The idea of a museum to celebrate the creation of the US Constitution was first mooted in 1887, at the centennial of the Constitution. It would take another one hundred years before the Constitution Heritage Act was signed, which paved the way for a museum dedicated to the US Constitution.
A prominent site at the Independence Mall opposite the Independence Hall was chosen for the new museum. Construction started on September 17, 2000, exactly 213 years after the signing of the Constitution. The Constitution Center opened three years later, on July 4, 2003.
The museum building was designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, who created a modern structure with large expanses of glass that symbolize openness and transparency. Inscribed on the facade are the first words of the Constitution, starting with ‘We the People’.
The museum’s entrance leads into a spacious atrium, the so-called Grand Hall. From a mezzanine overlook visitors get the chance to see a panoramic view of the Independence Mall. Above the overlook, suspended from the ceiling, hang the flags of US states.
On the ground floor is the Kimmel Center, a circular theater that is the scene of ‘Freedom Rising’, a theatrical multimedia production narrated by a live actor. It brings to life the more than two hundred year history of the Constitution.
The main exhibition of the museum, entitled ‘The Story of We the People’, is on the second floor. Here you can see artifacts such as a chair from the First Congress in 1790, shackles for slaves and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1864. There are also several interactive exhibitions; you can cast a vote in a voting booth and you can even be sworn in as President of the United States.
The museum visit ends in the Signers’ Hall, where you can walk among forty-two life-sized bronze statues of the Founding Fathers who were present during the signing of the Constitution. Thirty-nine of them signed the document, including famous names such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. The statues were created by StudioEIS, an art studio in Brooklyn specialized in the production of realistic figurative sculptures.