How Did the Constitution Center Become a Monument to Mediocrity?

It was supposed to be our high-tech temple to the greatest government document ever created. Here, we explore what went wrong

Through the Annenberg Foundation, Stengel lured big-name speakers and brought the Liberty Medal under the center’s banner. He secured a grant to found Constitution High School, a Center City college-prep school that focuses on civics and history, and started the Peter Jennings Institute, which offers journalists training in constitutional issues.

“The Constitution isn’t the sexiest thing,” Stengel says. “I wanted to make the Constitution Center where the biggest ideas were being discussed, part of the larger- national conversation. That hadn’t been in the strategic plan when it opened.”

But Stengel’s tenure was short-lived, and ended abruptly. In 2006, he left to become Time’s managing editor. “When he called me,” says Jack Bogle, then the center’s chairman, “I was in tears.”

THE YEAR BEFORE the Constitution Center opened, 2002, Independence Mall drew 2.9 million visitors. Last year, it drew 3.7 million—an uptick, sure, but hardly a quantum leap, due more to the Mall’s renovations and the city’s marketing campaigns than the center’s presence. Some 450,000 people, about half of them schoolchildren, pay to see the museum every year. (Another half-million or so attend the center’s other programming.) Compare that to the three-year-old Newseum, which draws 800,000 paying customers a year despite being surrounded by free Smithsonian competitors. Consider the data: A survey in 2008 found that tourists were twice as likely to stop by the Betsy Ross House as the National Constitution Center. Worse, historic-district visitors were keener on seeing the U.S. Mint and Elfreth’s Alley.

Between 2009 and 2010, the center generated $14.7 million in revenue, but ran an $8 million-plus deficit. Such a deficit isn’t unusual—in 2009, the Newseum had an almost $8 million shortfall, though it took in $84 million—but it’s clear the center needs to bring in more bodies.

With that in mind, it’s possible I’m being a little hard on the center. Its extracurriculars—speakers and debates and blog and such—are strong. And every so often, the same can be said of the museum itself. This summer’s much-ballyhooed George Washington exhibit, featuring artifacts from Mount Vernon and covering his life from surveyor to warrior to president to farmer, was fascinating, if bordering at times on hagiography. Past exhibits on battlefield paintings and the connections between Rome and the American experiment were particularly well received.

The center hired Neiman Group in April to overhaul its nonexistent branding strategy, but therein lies a risk. As Eisner puts it: “Future exhibits have to push the boundaries a little bit to get people who wouldn’t automatically come.” In other words, pander to a wider audience, which is what brought in the Princess Di feature last fall.

Part of the problem, Eisner says, is that there’s a shortage of history-themed programming making the museum rounds. He has a strategy for that: creating in-house content “that meets a lot of important needs for us. That will, firstly, be more -mission-centric. And secondly, that’ll produce more revenue, because we’ll put them on tour to other museums.” Within a decade, he expects to have a half-dozen traveling shows going at a time, including an exhibit on Prohibition that the center is working on with documentarian Ken Burns.

That’s great. But it doesn’t get at the underlying issue: relevance.

Take that planned Prohibition exhibit. It’s fertile ground that touches on everything from early feminism to organized crime to the intersection of social policy and economics. And as the subject of not one but two Constitutional amendments, it certainly feels more of a piece with the museum’s raison d’être than, say, the Diana exhibit. Not for nothing, it’ll also be a big draw.

But Prohibition ended almost 80 years ago. The war on terror, the battles over church and state and privacy and security-—the ugly, sometimes banal stuff that’s as much a part of our heritage as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson—is ongoing. Back to Wolf’s point: “They shy away from getting involved. Right now, there are six or eight things on the front page of the New York Timesthat you could have a Constitution Center exhibit about. We’re too careful, and we are too militantly obsessive about staying out of the brawls.”

“There’s no question we have to dial up the relevance,” Eisner responds, while noting that the center’s events are quite timely. “We’ve been slower to bring that into the exhibit space.” There are logistical problems: A feature exhibit can take millions of dollars and a couple years to put together, and it needs to have a decade-long lifespan to be feasible. So one on, say, the recent debt-ceiling standoff would be impractical—outdated before it went up.

Eisner has a strategy for that, too. Next year—in time for both the presidential election and the Constitution’s 225th birthday—the center will begin updating The Story of We the People, which hasn’t substantially changed since 2003. Technology that was cutting-edge back then is now old hat. Beyond that, the center plans to overhaul that space—less real estate to history, more to current events. The spots in the hall inviting you to share your views, via Post-it note or text message, on health-care reform or gay marriage are precursors.

What that will look like—and how it will blend with the center’s hot-dogs-and-apple-pie branding effort—isn’t yet clear. But it wouldn’t hurt the Constitution Center to take a long, hard look southward, to Washington, D.C. On some level, it’s unfair to compare the Constitution Center to the Newseum. The Newseum is much bigger, and much more ambitious. It had twice the center’s construction budget and square footage. But more important, it also has more passion. It’s unflinchingly visceral. There’s video of the World Trade Center under attack. There are horrible images of men being shot in the head at point-blank range and children fleeing napalm bombs. It’s unvarnished reality that, at times, is hard to watch.

And that’s what makes the other images and artifacts, the ones that show humanity at its best, so powerful. They’re real, too. The Constitution Center—for the time being, anyway—is fine. And that sucks.