Heroes Celebrated in National Liberty Museum Welcome Gallery Opening

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Students with George Washington at the Welcome to Liberty gallery opening. Photo courtesy of NLM.
Students with George Washington at the Welcome to Liberty gallery opening. Photo courtesy of NLM.

It has been said that liberty is always unfinished business. Liberty is strong and fragile; it must seize its opportunities and be lived. Fostering such an engagement with liberty lies behind the National Liberty Museum’s (NLM) new Welcome to Liberty gallery in Philadelphia, an interactive space, free to the public, uniquely designed to bring liberty to life and celebrate heroes of liberty of the past, present, and future.

The new gallery was opened last Thursday, September 18 and included an exciting celebratory day featuring fanfare, a special message from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, and a “heroes of liberty day” proclamation issued by Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter. The day began with a march from the iconic symbol of American independence, the Liberty Bell in Independence National Historic Park, to a full-scale replica of the bell inside the Museum. The official opening of the interactive space was marked with a torch lighting.

Engaging young people about liberty, and encouraging them to live like a hero every day, is a particular focus for the NLM. The Museum’s educational programs are premised on the principle that liberty is a moral construct. Liberty flourishes in our communities when practiced responsibly by enacting virtues such as courage, respect, and integrity. With grant support from the John Templeton Foundation, last week’s opening of the new Welcome to Liberty gallery also marked the launch of a groundbreaking multi-layered educational program designed to make liberty personal, contemporary, and meaningful through web- and school-based components.

Students use new iPad at the Welcome to Liberty gallery opening. Photo courtesy of NLM.

Students use new iPad at the Welcome to Liberty gallery opening. Photo courtesy of NLM.

Guests walking through the new welcome gallery will see many of the virtues and themes of the Museum’s programs embedded in interactive exhibits, offering them an experience focused on celebrating contemporary and historic heroes of liberty. The new space includes a liberty theatre showing a film on liberty and heroism, as well as interactive games and quizzes on famous historic and everyday contemporary figures. There is a voting booth in which visitors can cast their vote on who should be the next Hero of Liberty, and a quiz encouraging individuals to ask what kind of hero they might be. The new gallery is somewhere in between an art and science museum, enabling visitors to “get liberty.”

The architecture of the new space has also been carefully designed, featuring glass sculptures visually representing liberty’s strength and fragility; liberty as an opportunity and a living quality. These are themes interpreted throughout the eight galleries of the Museum. “To show how liberty is achieved through overcoming differences, one exhibit features a chess set in which the pieces, made of glass, represent different sides of a conflict,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Players must work as one to change the rules and resolve the issue. Another exhibit, Flame of Liberty, by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, shows how a small spark can brighten the future as it grows into a powerful flame.”

In addition to the educational programming students experience inside its galleries, the Museum’s Young Heroes Club program is a year-long initiative for fourth through eighth grades that helps develop the virtues of character and civic engagement that nurture liberty as a lived experience. “While the passion and persistence current educators have for fostering liberty is ever-present, a classroom model that presents the ability to cultivate character and civic education is not,” explains Gwen Borowsky, CEO of the NLM. “The museum is tackling this head-on with a unique learning model that brings liberty to life.”

The Young Heroes Club program is currently underway in 12 schools throughout the Philadelphia area, having been developed extensively over the past four years. “The curriculum advances students through ten modules teaching character-driven civic engagement,” Borowsky says. The John Templeton Foundation grant project is enabling the Museum to expand the Young Heroes Club curriculum and convert it to a web-based format for eventual use by schools and communities across the United States and around the world.

Dr. Jack Templeton addresses the audience at the Welcome to Liberty gallery opening. Photo courtesy of NLM.

Dr. Jack Templeton addresses the audience at the Welcome to Liberty gallery opening. Photo courtesy of NLM.

Another important component of the grant project is an evaluation study examining the impact of the NLM’s education programs on young people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to liberty and its associated virtues. The evaluation is being conducted over the 2014-2015 school year among students and teachers in partnership with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK.

“The John Templeton Foundation recognizes that the new exhibits, welcome gallery, and programs at the National Liberty Museum provide an opportunity to reflect and learn more about the key virtues that underlie the exercise of liberty,” says John M. Templeton, Jr., president and chairman of the Foundation. “These include gratitude and honesty, as well as compassion, industriousness, respect, future planning, and responsibility.”

“The grand opening of our welcome gallery represents what liberty means to us,” continues Borowsky. “We invite people from around the world to visit us and internalize liberty as a personal, modern and meaningful concept. We know visitors will be inspired to live like a hero after they leave our gallery.”