On the eve of the city of Philadelphia’s 300th anniversary in 1982, Mayor Green wanted to envision what the city could do for the bicentennial of the Constitution. In 1986, the National Constitution Center was formed under the helm of several community, business and civic leaders with a board led by Ted Wolf. To see this dream come true, he testified before a Senate subcommittee. Following this testimony Congress passed the “Constitution Heritage Act of 1988,” which was signed into law on September 16, 1988. The museum officially opened on July 4, 2003. The National Constitution Center is the only institution chartered by Congress to disseminate information about the Constitution on a non-partisan basis, stated by current Center President, Jeffrey Rosen.
The National Constitution Center is a grand building. While its spacious lobby may look empty, do not be fooled. The exhibits contain over 200 years of constitutional history. As you make your way into the lobby, there is an information desk where one of the museum staff greets you with a smile and an information brochure. Inside the map outlines the daily programs and a map of the building. Staff members at the information desk are ready and willing to answer any and all questions. Not only about the museum, but about historic Philadelphia as well.
The National Constitution Center is located on Independence Mall, the home of the Independence Visitor Center, the Liberty Bell Center, and Independence Hall, in historic Old City Philadelphia. Looking out the front of the Constitution Center you can see Independence Hall clearly.
Continuing to proceed through the lobby is the admissions desk. And much like the information desk, the admissions staff is ready and willing to answer all questions. There you can purchase tickets, memberships, the Go Philadelphia pass, the City Pass, and tickets to the Center’s Town Hall programs, and Philadelphia.
Typically, there is early American music playing. Also depending on what the feature exhibit is open, the music changes. For example, when American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition was open at the Center, the music was centered around the 1920s.**
The first place to start at the center is Freedom Rising. Freedom Rising is a 17 minute live theatrical and multimedia performance on the creation of the Constitution, its history and legacy today. On a rotating schedule, the Center’s actors take patrons through the evolution of the Constitution, this “living and breathing document” that has shaped the nation politically and culturally (cite). It ends by asking what we should do with freedom (cite). As the performance ends, visitors are led upstairs to the main exhibit gallery.
In “The Story of We the People,” the main exhibit gallery of the Center, many of the themes of Freedom Rising come to life. There are two ways to view this exhibit. On the outer ring, chronicles WHY we have the Constitution, including the chronology of the history of the constitution. You can experience the changes that occurred throughout time, like whether or not (depending on race, sex, gender, age) you were able to vote. The inner ring is a more hands on experience and HOW the Constitution works. You can check the balance of powers, vote, stand at a presidential podium among several other interactive exhibits. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this exhibit was closed.
After you exit the main gallery on the second floor, heading to the left of the main staircase is the Signer’s Hall gallery. One of most intriguing exhibits in the Center, Signer’s Hall houses 42 life-sized bronze statues of the signers of the Constitution, in their positions as the Constitution was signed just 2 blocks away. You really can feel the history in that room. Take all the photos you’d like and see just how tall (or short) the signers were!
To the right in Signer’s Hall is Constituting Liberty: From the Declaration to the Bill of Rights. This gallery contains a copy of the Declaration and a copy of the Pennsylvania Packet, the first, public printing of the Constitution. One of the many questions staff are asked is if the Constitution is at the Center. Unfortunately, it is not. All historic documents are housed at the National Archives in Washington D.C. However, the Pennsylvania Packet is a significant document and source of constitutional history. The printing of the constitution in the Packet was the first time the public saw the constitution before it was officially signed on September 17, 1787. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this exhibit was closed.
Heading back downstairs, there are three additional galleries. Of the three, American Treasures: Documenting the Nation’s Founding, is the smallest. In this space you will find drafts and compromises that influenced the final version of the Constitution (constitutioncenter.org). Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this exhibit was closed.
There are two main galleries: The 19th Amendment: How Woman Won the Vote and Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality. The 19th Amendment is the newest exhibit that is devoted to the history of the 19th Amendment starting from the Seneca Falls Convention through Progressive Era reforms and the state of voting today. As you walk through this exhibit there is not only music playing but also several areas where you can hear the debates over suffrage. In addition, there are several interactive exhibits that take you through the history of the 19th amendment. The exhibits introduces you to the suffragists responsible for the suffrage movement, but also those opposed to women’s suffrage. The exhibit colors, white, yellow, and purple representing the colors of the suffragists. This exhibit perfectly details the rise and fall and rise of women’s suffrage. As the exhibit shows, the tide began to change in 1916 as the suffragists more strongly demanded suffrage, which President Wilson still was not willing to concede on. They picketed, protested, and disrupted leading to many being thrown in jail. These Silent Sentinels as they were called, refused to eat while imprisoned, ultimately forcing President Wilson’s hand on suffrage. In response to this, in 1918 the House passed the suffrage amendment, but it was not until the midterm elections that the Republican majority supported the amendment. Two weeks later, the Senate passed. And in August 1920, the 19th amendment was finally added to the Constitution. This experience ends with voting rights after 1920 and the fights that have still continued.
The galleries and main exhibits offer numerous primary and original documents from archives and repositories across the nation.
The exhibits always leave you with an understanding of the grander scheme of things and how to use the Constitution in your own life.
If the exhibits weren’t enough, make sure to stop by on a holiday! The festivities around the 2nd and 4th of July, Flag day, Bill of Rights day, Memorial day, and of course, Constitution Day add to the continued exciting experience the Center offers its visitors. On days like these, there are additional lobby programming, lectures, and performances.
There is something for everyone at the National Constitution Center. If you want to see a specific exhibit, or want to causally stroll, you will leave having learned something exciting and new.
Having worked at the Center for 5 years, I can say from first-hand experience that visitors consistently enjoyed the exhibits. There is sometimes disappointment that the Center doesn’t actually have the Constitution, but they enjoy the exhibits regardless. Freedom Rising is a hit. If you’re short on time, I would highly recommend it! If I could have, I would have watched it every week. Each actor has their spin, but all of them brilliantly move the crowd. The staff always go above and beyond to provide a welcoming experience to all visitors, and if we didn’t know an answer, there was someone within ear shot to help out.
College Student (with ID) and Senior (65 and older)- $13
Youth (6-18)- $11
Childen (0-5), Active Military, Members- Free
Under non COVID-19 restrictions, they offer Philly Pass, City Pass, tickets can also be purchased through Groupon and the IVC
Thursday-Sunday 10am-5pm* due to COVID-19 restrictions
Normal hours of operation
While there is on site parking, it can fill up quickly depending on the day and time of year. The garage is located behind the building between 5th and 6th on Race St. Taking 676 East, take the Ben Franklin Bridge exit, but make sure to not turn onto the Ben Franklin. Stay in one of the right side lanes to head straight down 6th street and then turn left onto Race (the first right as you are leaving the off ramp).
By bus, Septa public transit route 48, 44, or 38 or Market Frankford Line on 5th and Market
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Brianna Quade is Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she is researching the cultural, political and economic representations and memory of music, focusing Philadelphia soul and hip hop. In her spare time, she enjoys ‘80s films, video games, watching giraffes, Philly sports and listening to music. She can be found on Twitter: @bmquade.