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A centerpiece of the museum is the Chronology Wall. Professor of Law and History Sarah Barringer Gordon, a member of the NCC’s advisory board and executive committee, said she is particularly proud of this exhibit, which speaks to the spirit of the museum because its conception sparked a Constitutional-style discussion among experts on how to portray the Constitution’s history.
“The Constitutional historians and theorists on the advisory panel,” Gordon recalls, “debated how to do this, where to put things, what kind of language to use, how to conceive of a chronology.” The undertaking was not easy: “We worried very much for example about when, where, and how often to introduce slavery. How do you talk about that? How do you include this enormous flaw in the structure and the society without trivializing it? How do you give appropriate balance to it?” Other debates centered on the treatment of women’s suffrage: “We didn’t just want a happy story,” she says. “We wanted it really to mean something.”
With her colleagues on the advisory panel, Gordon, an NCC visiting scholar, combed through the exhibit labels and materials both for accuracy and to ensure a rich experience for every visitor. NCC market research indicated that eighty percent of visitors would be schoolchildren and families and twenty percent would be scholars with a considerable understanding of the Constitution.
“Those of us on the advisory panel and the executive committee are deeply committed to making sure the presentation of the Constitution is not too simplistic or uni-vocal,” says Gordon. “The scholars are very keen on making sure not only that the twenty percent is satisfied and enriched by the experience, but also that the eighty percent has a chance, if they want to, to dive deeper at any level.”
Congress approved the concept of the National Constitution Center with the Constitution Heritage Act in 1988. Not until the mid-1990s, however, did serious discussions about a museum begin. The appointment of Edward G. Rendell C’65, then mayor of Philadelphia, as board chair and Joseph M. Torsella C’85 as president, began to move the project from concept to reality. From the ground up, Penn has been quite involved in the development of the NCC.
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