National Constitution Center


Created in 1988 by the Constitution Heritage Act, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia played a role in debates about the future of the Independence Mall area of Independence National Historical Park as a tourist draw and as a historic site that represented American national identity even before it was built. From its opening in 2003, the NCC used exhibits, programs, and performance to engage with the Constitution not only as a historical document, but also as a legal framework, a set of ideas, and a site of struggle both past and present. In the late 2010s, its identity as a site of education and political debate found new relevance in presenting a diverse and inclusive history of the United States as well as serving a polarized nation as a reliable, fact-based resource.

Exterior Photograph of the National Constitution Center
After opening its doors in 2003, the National Constitution Center emerged as one of Philadelphia’s leading centers of historic education. The site presented visitors with the history and evolving interpretations of the Constitution. (Visit Philadelphia)

The sponsors of the Constitution Heritage Act imagined an institution that would carry on the aims of the 1987 bicentennial of the Constitution and continue its educational project. Beyond the truism of Constitutional history as a vital part of American law, politics, democracy, and citizenship, advocates argued the NCC should inspire citizens in the present to participate in democracy and celebrate American ideals. Its educational mission aimed “to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution.” A 1998 opinion poll conducted by the museum found that more teenagers could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.

Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell (b. 1944), a key supporter of the NCC, incorporated it into his push for the redevelopment of Independence Mall. Rendell’s aim was to bolster the tourism economy in Philadelphia by revitalizing its familiar historic resources and building new ones. Ultimately, Rendell, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (1930-2012), NCC founding President Joseph Torsella (b. 1963), and others mobilized $86 million from state and federal governments as well as $5 million from the city and $10.5 million from the Delaware River Port Authority to support the construction and development of the museum. However, despite its federal mandate and its public funding, the NCC itself was a private institution and individual gifts were equally important to creating and sustaining it. Key early contributions came from Walter (1908-2002) and Leonore Annenberg (1918-2009) and Richard (1926-2018) and Helen DeVos (1927-2017), each couple donating $10 million.

The museum opened on July 4, 2003, at Fifth and Arch Streets with a view of Independence Hall three blocks to the south. The NCC’s invitation was to “Enter a visitor. Leave a citizen,” suggesting that participation and engagement with the ideas of freedom and democracy were more central to the museum experience than learning the names and dates associated with a 200-year-old document.

Permanent Exhibit Interactives
The National Constitution Center’s signature exhibit, The Story of We the People, enabled visitors to trace the pivotal moments that shaped the United States into the nation it is today. The exhibit utilized audio and video interactives as well as visual texts and artifacts. (National Constitution Center)

“We the People” Exhibit

The museum housed the main exhibit“The Story of We the People”in a massive, round exhibit hall. In the center was a sharply stepped 360-degree theater staging hourly live, multimedia performances of “Freedom Rising.” Around the perimeter was a circular exhibit, a timeline of American history from the Stamp Act of 1765 to the Patriot Act of 2001. It brought legal history together with the history of politics and democracy to explore key themes of national identity. A dizzying array of text, primary sources, secondary sources, objects, sculpture, sound, video, and interactivesboth digital and analognarrated these histories offering traditional textual approaches to museum display and participatory modes of engagement. While the format stayed the same, the museum updated displays periodically to include post-2003 events like the election of Barack Obama (b. 1961). It also revised its discussion of the Civil War and Reconstruction to reflect the historiography of a later exhibit that explored both the successes and failures of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" Speech, March 18, 2008
Presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered his “A More Perfect Union” speech at the National Constitution Center on March 18, 2008. The speech highlighted deep-seated racial ideologies present within the United States and received acclaim from the public at large. (National Constitution Center)

To uphold its nonpartisan mission, the museum has sought to straddle party lines and ideological divides. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) and Stephen Breyer (b. 1938) were on the advisory board for the opening and, despite their opposing political ideologies, were both pleased with the resulting exhibits. On the contemporary Supreme Court, the Constitutional interpretation was the subject of an ongoing ideological battle between originalists like Scalia and pragmatists like Breyer. At the Constitution Center, however, exhibits highlighted familiar debates like those over voting rights or race and gender equality as narratives of progress and an evolving national consensus. Educational programs and speakers sometimes focused more on debate and sometimes were more contentious. Together, the whole of the institution, from funders to supporters to school groups, offered multiple approaches that ultimately created balanced discussion as the ideal way to understand politics and the Constitution.

The timeline format of the main exhibit showed how the Constitution changed over timeusually in favor of equality and inclusivity. Highlighting these changes further were panels mounted above the visitor upon which the text of the Constitution was etched in glass with notes marking changes that later amendments made to the original document. The Interactive Constitution, an online digital resource, used a similar method of annotation as well as essays and commentary to explore Constitutional history and debate in-depth. The development of the Interactive Constitution began in 2015 with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. It was a collaboration with the Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian think tank, and the American Constitution Society, a progressive counterpart.

Since its opening, the National Constitution Center also has featured an array of temporary exhibits, some more closely related to the Constitution than others. The NCC’s concerns about generating public interest, and thus admissions, factored into programming decisions and worried some critics that the efforts to be popular were causing it to drift from its mission. A 2009 exhibit on Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-99) was a particularly glaring attempt to attract visitors without regard to the institutional and educational mission. The first decade of the 2000s was a moment when many museums were turning to flashy exhibits produced by for-profit entertainment companies to enhance revenues. However, the Constitution Center’s own internal financial struggles should also be understood in context of the unique competition it faced from free historical and educational sites like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell nearby.

Interactive Theater Program

In the 2010s, the NCC adopted new strategies while retaining old ones. The museum began producing exhibits in-house that engaged more directly with Constitutional issues and showed their relevance to everyday life in the present. Some of those exhibits also toured. In 2010, the museum revitalized its educational mission with the interactive theater program “The Living News.” In 2015, it also took on a local collaboration in curating  “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court” with the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia.

In 2013, the National Constitution Center hired Jeffrey Rosen (b. 1964) as its sixthand by 2021 its longest servingPresident and CEO. He was the first legal scholar to lead the institution. While there was a continued focus on education and K-12 school groups, Rosen also led multipartisan academic engagement with the Constitution through programs like the Interactive Constitution and “America’s Town Hall” which brought together conservative and liberal scholars to discuss historic and contemporary issues in law and politics. In the name of balanced debate, these programs showed the Constitution as a site of struggle whose meaning was unsettled.

In 2019 and 2021, the museum opened large exhibits curated in-house on the Civil War and on the 19th Amendment. These extended the traditional display strategiesartifacts and textual labels informed by historical scholarshipused elsewhere. The former also contained digital interactives that, like other Constitution Center projects, used the process of revisionin this case revision of the Reconstruction amendments prior to their passageto show the complex political as well as linguistic trajectories that led to the evolution of the law and society. In addition, the museum launched FOURTEEN, another educational theater program, about lesser known histories of the Black experience after the Civil War. The Pew Foundation funded the program with Black writers and performers from Philadelphian leading its creation.

Signers' Hall in the National Constitution Center
Signers’ Hall emerged as one of the National Constitution Center’s most popular attractions. The hall recreated the contentious, yet monumental, atmosphere of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. As seen in this 2018 photograph, the exhibit surrounded visitors with forty-two life-size bronze statues of the founding fathers.(A. Wendowski for Visit Philadelphia)

Consideration of race and gender in the history of a document authored by white men, many of whom enslaved people, reflected the progressive ethos of a moment when many Americans were reconsidering the stories they had long told about their national past. However, this period saw the NCC capture other political currents as well. It made itself a place to turn to for civil discourse and trustworthy, balanced information about the law, the Constitution, and American history amidst attacks on all three. Said Rosen in 2020: “People are hungry for an alternative to the partisan paralysis and clashes that are paralyzing Washington, and that is what the framers intended: A constitution shaped by the understanding of the people.” The NCC embodied what people often imagine museumsand the Constitutionto be: neutral, trusted authorities. At the same time, the NCC’s programs and its new exhibits showed that the Constitution was actually defined by partisan clashes. It was not neutral and in fact had always been a site of constant struggle for freedom, equality, and democracy.

Mabel Rosenheck is a public historian, independent scholar, and lecturer based in Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2022, Rutgers University.


Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" Speech, March 18, 2008.

National Constitution Center

On March 18, 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a speech, titled “A More Perfect Union,” that was met with praise by the public at large. NBC News later named it the best political speech of the decade. The speech was precipitated by the sermons of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor and campaign participant, who expressed divisive and accusatory comments on issues such as 9/11 and institutional racism. Once these sermons were brought to the attention of the public, they became a storm that threatened to devastate Obama’s presidential campaign. While Obama’s speech condemned the controversial statements of Reverend Wright, it more directly highlighted the nation’s broader issues of racial inequalities and divisiveness.

Speaking to an audience at the National Constitution Center, Obama framed the nation’s history as a continuous battle to make the Constitution’s core ideal of “equal citizenship” a reality. From the abolition of slavery to the Civil Rights movement, Obama expressed how “this union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” Faced with societal racism and indiscriminate inequalities alike, he posited that if his contemporary Americans were to work together, “we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds. . . we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.” After winning the presidency later that year, many news outlets reflected on the speech as a campaign-defining moment.

Permanent Exhibit Interactives

National Constitution Center

The National Constitution Center’s signature exhibit, The Story of We the People, enabled visitors to experience the pivotal elections and landmark Supreme Court cases that shaped the Constitution and its interpretation into its modern adaptation. The exhibit featured two concentric rings. Large-scale texts and artifacts dominated the outer ring and transported visitors from the Stamp Act of 1765 to the modern day, while the inner ring displayed a theatric showing of the film “Freedom Rising.” Throughout the exhibit, several audio and video interactives to further engaged museumgoers. This photograph, taken by the National Constitution Center, highlights guests using one of these interactives, as their touchscreens prompted them with the question “Can you vote?” The visitors then selected a location and answered questions related to race, gender, and literacy status to gauge their right to participate in democracy at a certain time and place. As of 2022, The Story of We the People was a permanent exhibit located on the second floor in the museum’s “The Richard and Helen DeVos Exhibition Hall,” named to honor the couple’s ten-million-dollar contribution to the site.

Signers' Hall in the National Constitution Center

Visit Philadelphia

The National Constitution Center designed Signers’ Hall to recreate the contentious atmosphere of the Constitutional Convention and to educate the public on the United States’ founding document. As seen in this 2018 photograph, the exhibit surrounded visitors with forty-two bronze statues of the founding fathers. These statues represented the thirty-nine delegates who signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, as well as the three who rejected its contents – George Mason, Edmund Randolph, and Elbridge Gerry. The exhibit focused on the issues that divided the delegates, such as state representation in Congress and the amount of power the federal government should hold. Signers’ Hall opened alongside the National Constitution Center on July 4, 2003. As of 2022, it has remained a permanent exhibit of the museum, located just three blocks north of Independence Hall—the site of the Constitution’s historic signing. (Photograph by A. Wendowski)

Artifacts at the National Constitution Center

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The National Constitution Center favored multimedia, theatrical, and interactive engagement over traditional museum collections. However, the museum did own a rare copy of the first printing of the Constitution, donated by Robert L. McNeil Jr. (1915-2010). The Historical Society of Pennsylvania loaned many items for display, including this Committee of Detail proof copy of the Constitution from August 4-5, 1787. The National Park Service also loaned many archaeological artifacts uncovered during construction of the museum and nearby structures in the early 2000s. The larger archaeological dig uncovered evidence of working- and middle-class families as well as the home of President George Washington (1732-1799) and the quarters of the nine men and women he enslaved.

Exterior Photograph of the National Constitution Center

Visit Philadelphia

The National Constitution Center was created through the Constitutional Heritage Act of 1988 to promote political participation and educate the American populace on the Constitution’s historic and contemporary significance. The museum opened its doors in 2003 and eventually became one of Philadelphia’s most popular centers of learning. The site’s signature exhibit, The Story of We the People, allowed visitors to experience the pivotal moments that shaped the United States into the nation it is today. Its remaining space was used for temporary exhibits that highlighted individual events of constitutional significance, such as the Hamilton exhibit advertised in the 2018 photograph above. Over time, the institution established itself as a well-respected, politically neutral source for interpreting constitutional issues. (Photograph by A. Ricketts)

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Related Reading

Ferentinos, Susan. “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court by Jeffery Rosen, Bob Skiba and Chris Bartlett.” The Public Historian. 38, no.1 (2016): 104-108.

Hoffman, William and Deborah Miller. “The Baker and the Quaker: Ongoing Research from the National Constitution Center Site.” Historical Archaeology of the Delaware Valley, 1600-1850. Richard F. Veit and David Gerald Orr, Eds. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014. 205-24.

Ramberg, Jenny. “Exhibit Review: “ ‘Are queer folk the People, too?’: National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA.” Museums and Social Issues. 3, no.1 (2008): 143-49.

Zeisberg, Mariah. “A New Framing? Constitutional Representation at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center.” Perspectives on Politics. 6, no.3 (2008) 553-68.

Zuckerman, Michael. “National Constitution Center.” Journal of American History. 91, no. 3 (2004) 966-71.

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