Museum digs deep into Constitution

The National Constitution Center (NCC), which opened on Independence Mall July 4, is designed to offer visitors a serious look at America’s central governing document in an engaging fashion.

It also represents an opportunity for Penn, the center’s educational partner, to take its scholarly mission to an entirely new audience.

“We have an opportunity through our influence on the NCC’s programs to extend our reach as an institution, influencing the way people think about citizenship well beyond our traditional clientele. It’s also a way to fulfill our civic obligations,” said Penn’s point person on the NCC project, Professor of History Rick Beeman.

Beeman has been involved with the center from its beginnings as an idea in 1987, the Constitution’s bicentennial year. In the mid-1990s, Beeman and Brown University historian Gordon Wood organized a group of scholars that pushed for serious intellectual content in the planned museum’s exhibits. From this effort arose the NCC’s Board of Distinguished Scholars, which Beeman and Wood co-chair. Three other Penn faculty also serve on the panel—Professor of History Sheldon Hackney, Professor of Law Kim Scheppele and Nancy Streim, associate dean of the Graduate School of Education.

One of the panel’s goals was to create exhibits that would engage the museum’s target audience of young teens without boring adults who had more knowledge of the subject. “Mention the word ‘museum’ to [middle school students] and they all start to gag, groan and moan,” Beeman said. “The challenge of designing a museum that is intellectually acceptable to highly educated adults and to an audience that lacks that education is formidable.”

The NCC uses technology to square this circle, with interactive exhibits that allow museum visitors to dig deeper into a subject. Current events will also play a role, Beeman said. “Most Americans know very little about the Constitution, but they have strong opinions on the court conflicts that arise from it,” citing the recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action as an example. “Our interpretive labels do not preach a ‘correct’ interpretation. We present conflicts and let visitors engage them.”

Originally published on July 17, 2003