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

It’s Flag Day, June 14th, and I have the National Constitution Center nearly to myself.

Inside the museum’s core exhibit, The Story of We the People, a sweeping circular collection of multimedia displays and whizbang gadgetry—“the Star Trek thing,” as Joseph Torsella, the center’s president from 1997 to 2003 and again from 2006 to 2009, describes it—there’s but a smattering of elderly people and teenagers on chaperoned day trips. They meander about the American National Tree, a seemingly infinite array of touch-screen vignettes on American notables (César Chávez, Larry Flynt, John Rockefeller); have themselves videotaped taking the presidential oath of office; and watch Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein’s kaffeeklatch Q&A on the Constitution’s glories on a projector screen. I’m later told that if you fully explored every one of the hundred or so display screens and History Channel-produced video shorts in this hall, you’d be here for 17 hours. I made it through in about 25 minutes.

Around the corner is Signers’ Hall, where the Constitution’s framers are depicted as pensive life-sized bronze statues, debating in an erudite,gentlemanly manner the issues of the day. In an overlooked alcove is one of the center’s few artifacts, a barely legible early printing of the Constitution from the Pennsylvania Gazette.

The centerpiece of this hall—this museum, really-is a carefully choreographed one-actor show called Freedom Rising, a 17-minute retelling of how the Constitution came to be. Paintings of colonists and photos of iconic moments in American history are splashed onto the 360-degree theater’s- walls and floor and screens that descend from the ceiling. It all crescendos in a soaring, if overwrought, exhortation to be grateful for our freedoms. This is, far and away, visitors’ favorite attraction.

“Being uplifted and feeling pride is among the best experiences you can have,” Constitution Center president and CEO David Eisner says on July 6th, two days after its eighth anniversary and this country’s 235th birthday. “I defy you to find a roller coaster that when people get off it, they feel as good as they feel at the end of Freedom Rising.”

To me, it felt more fifth-grade social studies than Six Flags. In fact, that’s an apt description of my whole Constitution Center experience: rudimentary history with a gloss of patriotism, sugarcoated for easier digestion.

In mid-July I spent a muggy Sunday playing tourist in Washington, D.C., Philly’s main historical tourism competitor, taking in the Smithsonian’s vast National Museum of American History and the National Archives’ vault-like Rotunda, where the original Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are housed.

But the highlight of my trip was, without reservation, the Newseum, a seven-story, $450 million facility that opened in 2008 as a celebration of the free press. From its dazzling glass-and-steel architecture to its 14 exhibit galleries and 15 theaters, from the collection of Berlin Wall pieces to the massive 31-foot-tall 9/11 memorial, from the 8,000-plus artifacts to the kid-friendly interactive displays to the heart-wrenching wall of Pulitzer Prize-winning photography, the Newseum is exactly what a museum should be: provocative, compelling, dramatic, beautiful. In comparison, the Constitution Center looks woefully small—almost inconsequential.

As I hopped in a cab back to Union Station that afternoon, I was haunted by one thought: The Constitution Center sucks.

UPON REFLECTION THAT’S NOT entirely fair.

In some respects, the Constitution Center has been quite successful. It regularly features top-shelf speakers and issue panels. Every September, it awards the Liberty Medal—this year, to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates; in years past, to Tony Blair, Steven Spielberg and Bono. It has hosted big-name debates, most notably between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, and Obama’s famous race speech earlier that spring. Bill Clinton heads its board of trustees. George H.W. Bush held that post before him.

You’d think, then, that the $185 million Constitution Center would be an indelible Philadelphia institution. It’s not. It hasn’t produced an appreciable spike in tourism, or boosted the city’s national clout in any discernible way. Instead, the center’s museum is an afterthought—an inexpensive way to catch a break from the summer heat after you’ve toured Independence Hall and snapped a photo of the Liberty Bell.

Eight years on, the Constitution Center feels like a missed opportunity.

The center knows it has a problem. This month it will unveil a new marketing strategy, aimed at letting tourists know that: a) it exists; and b) coming here will make you feel good about America. Eisner, who became CEO in December 2009, has a PR background, so it’s no coincidence that under his watch the center is launching its first real branding initiative. “We get A-plus grades for content,” he says, “and gentlemen’s passing scores for distribution.”

But maybe when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maybe, considering what constitutes that “A-plus” content—the middling Freedom Rising; this summer’s underwhelming feature exhibit, Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, which had all the intrigue of a basic-cable documentary on space aliens building the Egyptian pyramids; 2009’s plea for attention, Diana: A Celebration, an exhibit (in the Constitution Center, no less) about a deceased British ex-royal—something else is amiss.

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  • Will

    This article was obviously written from the perspective of someone who wants to make a name for himself by writing something somewhat contraversial. As a FREQUENT visitor the the NCC, I am always amazed and delighted by their ever changing daily programming and special events. Although I do agree that the NCC should address new technology the staff alone makes the place an incredibly worthwhile visit that is both economical and family friendly. Lose the attitude. There can only be one Matt Taibbi and your writing certaily is not at that level, just your angst.

  • College

    This article leaves me totally lost. Clearly, the writer has either never visited the NCC or paid no attention on his visit. I can challenge this article factually on numerous accounts (“the center’s few artifacts”? Guess the whole wall of artifacts doesn’t count). By the time I finished the article, I was disgusted with the author’s tactless criticism in what is ostensibly a magazine celebrating Philadelphia-ness. Perhaps, if the author so loves D.C.’s Newseum, he should spend more time there instead of dreaming up criticisms of the nation’s only museum exploration of our founding document. No one denies the need for the NCC to continue to improve itself, but to write this philippical list of misinformed criticisms is simply shoddy journalism.

  • Lauren

    The author commented that it he only spent 25 minutes going through the NCC. I am assuming that he took the 8th grade mentality and just walked right through it. D.C. has done an incredible job with it’s museums, but give Philly the credit it deserves. The NCC does need to find a way to draw visitors in for returned visits. Many of the special exhibits do not live up to their advertising and for that I can see criticism, but unfortunately the author barely talks about the NCC itself and spends more time discussing D.C. If you like DC so much, move there. Philly won’t miss you.

  • anonymous

    the author probably couldn’t understand anything in the ncc exhibits. I mean c’mon it is, afterall, geared to people with some modicum of education. the fourth graders who walk through the center with their eyes wide open and their minds yearning to learn don’t think it sucks. maybe the author will write about those students next month and call them poo-poo pants or something mature like that. cheaps shots in an amateur attempt to get someone to read lousy article.

  • Jan

    I have visited the NCC several times and always enjoy the Freedom Rising show. However, I responded to the excellent marketing of the Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs exhibit and took that in one day. I

  • Mark

    So, you spend under 20 minutes at the NCC and write three pages of blistering critique? Hatchet jobs like this review should not be taken seriously. Was this writer at the Franklin tercentenary exhibit at the NCC, one of the best in Philadelphia history? Of course not. Instead, he reviews the museum in an unprofessional manner, taking pot shots, instead of examining the positive impact on Philadelphia when world leaders and famous scholars come to the museum to discuss and debate the impact of the Constitution not only on Americans, but the rest of the world. And comparing the NCC with the Newseum is unfair. it would be like comparing this writer with David Brooks. Enough said.

  • Joseph

    Mr. Billman has barely scratched the surface with the multitude of problems the NCC has faced from its very opening. On opening day when the outside overhead fell on Joe Torsella’s head on July 4, 2