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National Constitution Center Opens in Philadelphia - 2003-07-03

Just a few years ago, polls showed that more young Americans could name the Three Stooges (comic characters) than the three branches of the U.S. government. This Fourth of July, efforts to remedy that get a boost with the opening of a museum dedicated to the U.S. Constitution. The new museum is in Philadelphia, the birthplace of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

The president of the new National Constitution Center, Joe Torsella, says a museum dedicated to one of America's most sacred historical documents is long overdue.

"In a culture where we have museums about the peanut, the gourd and NASCAR [sports race car] racing, but no museum about this document - the first written constitution in the world, the oldest operating constitution in the world, the - if not exactly copy, the inspiration for many other constitutions," he said. "We need a place about this because it [the Constitution] has continued to be a success. Our continued engagement with it is fundamental to the continued success of our republic."

The American Constitution, signed in 1787, provides the foundation and structure for the U.S. government, dividing it into the executive, legislative and judicial branches. These are more commonly known as the president, the Congress and the Supreme Court.

Museum President Mr. Torsella says the new center will include what he calls "the good, the bad and the ugly." One exhibit focuses on the first 10 constitutional amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. Another exhibit focuses on corporate power and business law. Yet another one discusses the U.S. Patriot Act, a package of sweeping anti-terror laws put into place following the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.

Mr. Torsella says one of the Constitution's greatest contributions is that Americans accept the rule of law and can resolve disagreements peacefully, through constitutional means. He points to two examples, the Supreme Court ruling in the 2000 presidential election and the court's involvement in the 1972 Watergate scandal. "When the Supreme Court announced their decision in Bush versus Gore, no one took to the streets," said Mr. Torsella. "We've got a story here about the Supreme Court telling a powerful president, Nixon, who controlled armies, turn over the tapes. He did."

A multimedia presentation in the museum's 360-degree theater told the story of the United States, with special emphasis on the freedoms that drew and continue to draw thousands of immigrants.

Throughout, an actress serving as narrator consistently repeated the Constitution's first three words - "we, the people" - to emphasize the central role American citizens play in the U.S. government. The narrator urged Americans to realize that while they wield power over the government, exemplified by the right to vote, they also must take responsibility for the country's freedom.

The U.S. Constitution recognizes each human being's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a concept that to this day is open to Supreme Court interpretation.

Museum program director Amber Auld Combs says she expects this is the fact that will surprise visitors the most; the document's current and continuing relevance.

"I think probably what's going to be the most unexpected for them is the sense that, 'this really is about me, and this isn't just a dusty piece of paper written over 200 years ago'," she said. "It really has an influence on my life today."

Ms. Combs adds that the U.S. Constitution can also provide inspiration for people in other countries.

"I think international visitors might be coming to us to get a feel for how our system works, so that it can be compared to or borrowed from, if appropriate, what they might be facing in their own homes," said Amber Auld Combs.

The museum is just down the street from the historic building where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were signed. Outside of Independence Hall, Shan Sundaram, a Sri Lankan immigrant who now lives in New Jersey, said he brought his six-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sanjana, for her first visit.

"This is a focal point of the whole America, and everything originated from here," he said.

Mr. Sundaram, who came to the United States 26 years ago, contrasts the American ideals with his life back home.

"I'm from northern part of Sri Lanka," he said. "I'm a Tamil. And lot of conflict in northern part, that Tamils don't have rights in northern part, so I really came here to enjoy the freedom."

A ranger leading tours at Independence Hall applauds the new Constitution center, saying he feels the greatest threat to freedom is complacency.

The new $185 million museum is funded largely by contributions from national, state and local governments. About $40 million came from private donations. A visit is not free, with adult tickets costing $6 each. Visitors don't go home empty handed, though. They each will receive a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, which has initially been printed in English and Spanish, but also will soon be available in nine other languages.