PHILADELPHIA - "We, the people . . ." The iconic phrase seems to float through the National Constitution Center. And when the words echo in the exhibits and halls, you don't just picture men in white wigs signing a document with quill pens. You get a heartfelt sense that just as it did when the signers produced the US Constitution nearly 221 years ago, the phrase envelops us all.
The center is a study in dynamic learning. From the multimedia presentation at the start through the main halls and alcoves, opportunities abound for taking part in exhibits. At a facility dedicated to men who believed that getting involved was key to building a new nation, the approach makes sense.
Admission to the museum, located in Independence National Historical Park, includes a "Delegate's Pass" to the hourly multimedia show. This takes place in a circular theater and includes not only the expected film montages and soundtrack but also live actors describing the process by which the Constitution was painstakingly constructed by George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others.
Wearing professional attire rather than historical costumes, the actors are the history teachers we all wish we could have had in school: Their engaging intonations and graceful gestures draw us into the story. By the end of the 45-minute show, the groundwork has been laid for a closer look at the nation's beginnings.
In Constitution Hall life-size bronze statues of the 42 delegates (from among the original 55) to the Constitutional Convention who were there, one in absentia, for the signing on Sept. 17, 1787, are arranged in clusters as if engaged in conversation, making visitors feel as if they are part of a milling crowd. Plaques at the delegates' feet identify them by name and state.
Visitors are invited to sign a guestbook, indicating their agreement with the content of the Constitution. There is precedent for those who choose not to sign. Some of the delegates, as a plaque explains, feared the Constitution put too much power in one place; three dissented, leaving 39 signatures on the final document.
The main exhibit hall is devoted to various personalities and aspects of the governmental process. A "touch your state" computer helps visitors learn about their state's US representatives. An architectural model showing the Supreme Court, the Capitol, and the White House brings into three-dimensional reality the three branches of government. There is a podium and teleprompter at which visitors can take the presidential oath; nearby a film shows a citizenship ceremony.
There's also a touch-screen computer exhibit showing a changing montage of postage-stamp-size photos. Touch on any face to read or hear a biography of that particular American icon. Options go well beyond the Constitution signers and past presidents. Personalities include lesser-known trailblazers such as Osceola, Woody Guthrie, Ryan White, Patsy Takemoto Mink, Whittaker Chambers, and Queen Liliuokalani.
At several points in the main exhibit hall posters ask provocative questions such as "What does it mean to be an American?", "What justifies sending American troops to war?", and "Do we have too much federal government, or not enough?" At the base of each poster is a yellow pad and pencils, and visitors can jot a response and stick it to the poster for others to ponder. A 21st-century museum may well be built upon 3-D computerized exhibits and surround-sound presentations, but the Constitution has its roots in hearty democratic discussion.
Perhaps the least high-tech "exhibit" of all is in the Grand Hall on the second floor, where enormous windows face south. From here, visitors can look out over the lawn and see the squat brick building that houses the Liberty Bell - and just beyond that, Independence Hall. Some 125 miles farther south, one can picture the landmarks of Washington. The memorable vista provides a vivid reminder of the importance of the document that ensures Americans' freedom.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at NancySWest@msn.com.