The National Liberty Museum weaves together people, places, events and images to help visitors form their own understanding of one of America's ideals.
By ROBERTA SOTONOFF
Published January 2, 2005
[Photos courtesy of the National Liberty Museum]
Students pause at a wall displaying photos of more than 300 New York City firefighters who lost their lives responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center. The faces help young people realize that heroism begins with everyday people.
At the National Liberty Museum, young visitors write down the harmful names and words they have heard, or have used to hurt others, then feed the paper into a shredder.
PHILADELPHIA - The centerpiece of the National Liberty Museum is a 20-foot, crimson-colored glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly appropriately titled The Flame of Liberty . It stands amid tributes to American heroes.
Walls are filled with pictures of heroes: Nobel Prize winners such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; people whose work has had far-reaching effects, such as Dr. Jonas Salk; people who have achieved remarkable success, such as Oprah Winfrey.
But the museum also honors unknown heroes, including the New York firefighters who gave their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, and those who worked to overcome disabilities, including actor Christopher Reeve and pianist-singer Ray Charles.
For contrast, there is also a wall of losers, including tyrants Pol Pot of Cambodia, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro.
Many people visit the museum to learn about their loved ones. Any American who has received a military medal, including the Purple Heart, is in a database containing information on how the medal was earned.
The Chihuly sculpture is a highlight by design; the facility uses glass artworks to educate. Glass helps underscore the fragility of principles such as freedom and liberty.
"Glassworkers make intangible ideas visual, and that makes learning interesting. It's like slipping vitamins into unhealthy food," public relations manager Amanda Hall says.
"The museum is not preachy. It doesn't tell you what to think, just to think. "
Still, exhibits gently lead visitors in certain directions, sometimes jolting them with facts. For instance, the display "From Conflict to Harmony" discusses the violence to which children are regularly exposed: video games, music, TV, films. The display notes that 264 people are killed in the movie Die Hard 2 . That takes place as part of the action, moving the story along.
The ripple effect of violence is accentuated in Harvey Littleton's Shattered Lives , a thick slab of glass pierced by a bullet. The multitude of cracks is a glaring reminder that even one bullet can affect the lives of many.
The exhibit offers positive solutions. To break the "cycle of hate" - the cause of violence - there is a shredder for cruel words and a list of 10 ways to peacefully resolve differences.
The colorful Jelly Bean Kids artwork by Sandy Skoglund is a vivid reminder that everyone is basically the same regardless of the shade of their skin.
Posted on a bulletin board are thank yous and comments from young visitors. One note, printed in block letters on lined paper, simply says, "We can use our hearts to accept one another."
Accepting one another is also a topic in the "Let Freedom Ring" exhibit. It probes the delicate situation inherent in the First Amendment: It gives Americans freedom of speech, but people with a nefarious agenda can utilize it for their intentions.
Thus, beneath Czeslow Zuber's Bigots Hiding Under the Flag sculpture - glass chips alongside a cracked American flag - the caption reads: "They wave the American flag claiming their patriotism, but they reject America's most basic principle of equality for all."
Though the emphasis is on 20th and 21st century America, the museum's "Heroes from Around the World" gallery celebrates people from 55 nations, with glass art and panoramas, such as life-sized replicas of Nelson Mandela's jail cell in South Africa and Anne Frank's living quarters while she hid from the Nazis in Holland.
One mesmerizing display features a two-tier scene: five clay figures in an underground hiding place. This celebrates the selflessness of the Puchalskis, a peasant Polish family. During World War II, they risked their lives by pulling five young Jews off the street to save them from the German occupation forces.
For 17 months, the five lived under the floorboards of a bedroom, in a small, dark space. The Puchalskis scattered onions and heavily scented items under their bed so the Nazis' tracking dogs couldn't pick up the scent.
One of those survivors, Feliz Zandman, is CEO of the Fortune 500 company Vishay Intertechnology. Zandman's life probably would have been snuffed out if the Puchalskis hadn't cared. The lesson: Ordinary people often are heroes, too.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: There is direct air service between the Tampa Bay area and Philadelphia.
THE MUSEUM: National Liberty Museum, 321 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily Memorial Day through Labor Day; closed Monday rest of the year. Holiday schedule may vary. Admission: $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 students, free for children accompanied by family. Tours for groups of 10 or more are available; call ahead.