It's fitting that the National Liberty Museum, which opened last week in the heart of the city's historic area, is full of stunning glass sculptures that speak to both the beauty of freedom and the pain of violence. The glass serves as a reminder that liberty is both strong and fragile, and not easily repaired once shattered.
The glass sculptures--the centerpiece is the 20-foot crimson "Flame of Liberty" by noted artist Dale Chihuly--reflect the varied messages of the museum, which celebrates a diverse group of heroes and the freedoms Americans enjoy, and rallies against the violence and hatred that pervade this country.
The exhibits, designed for adults and school-age children, range from upbeat stories of heroism and courage to re-creations of Anne Frank's World War II hiding place and Nelson Mandela's South African prison cell.
The impetus for the museum is Irvin Borowsky, who made his fortune in publishing but still remembers the pain and stigma of growing up different--in his case, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland.
For almost 20 years, he's been spending that fortune to promote freedom and nonviolence as founder of the American Interfaith Institute and the World Alliance of Interfaith Organizations. The museum "is a reflection of my life experiences and fear of escalating violence in America," Borowsky, the museum's founder and chairman, said last week. "Since I had the ability and determination, I felt I could change things."
The museum's vision is clear in its first exhibit, an interactive computer display with stories of 200 noteworthy Americans of the 20th century, including public figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Jackie Robinson but also lesser-known heroes such as Viola Liuzzo, the Michigan housewife who was shot to death in 1965 by Ku Klux Klan members while working for the civil rights movement. Special attention is paid to including women and minorities.
Across the hall, visitors are encouraged to vote electronically on such thorny constitutional issues as whether citizens espousing violence should be permitted to air their views via the Internet, radio or television or at rallies.
The second floor houses an exhibit for younger visitors on the pervasiveness of violence and hatred in this country. A small statue of slain Beatle John Lennon and photographs of last year's shootings at Columbine High School are accompanied by brutal facts: Every 90 minutes a child is murdered in America, which is the equivalent of losing an entire high school of students to murder every two months.
Young people are challenged to consider whether violent movies or hard-rock and rap lyrics that promote violence, sex and torture are entertainment.
Further on is a paper shredder into which children can feed the unkind and hateful words they've used or been called. They are encouraged to write positive messages, which are posted at the museum, such as: "We should see through color and look at the heart."
Another highlight is two life-size jelly bean children, made up of multicolored candies, signifying that color differences are only skin deep. Butterflies of all different hues flutter in the background, and visitors are urged to consider what would be lost "if they were all exactly the same."
As with the polling booths for adults downstairs, younger visitors are asked to electronically record their views on such questions as whether violence on television influences how they behave and whether parents should be held responsible for their children's actions.
Other galleries spotlight the courageous acts of those from other countries, and the biblical beginnings of the quest for democracy and freedom, culminating with the American struggles for independence, women's rights and civil rights.
The National Liberty Museum pays particular homage to the melting pot of America, celebrating a different kind of hero than the white, Protestant men from England honored down the street at Independence Hall and next door at Benjamin Franklin's court, said Gwen Borowsky, the museum's executive director and its founder's daughter.
Ruth and Edward Hess of Philadelphia, among the first visitors, came to see the gallery of Chihuly glass sculptures and to reflect on the freedom this country affords its citizens. "We just don't know how lucky we are," Ruth Hess said. "We forget how important liberty is."
As for Irvin Borowsky, who put his money where his mouth is to promote the ideals of liberty and nonviolence, he hopes the museum will "teach each new generation of Americans to respect people who are different from themselves."
The National Liberty Museum, 321 Chestnut St., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for students. Call (215) 925-2800 for more information.
CAPTION: Sandy Skoglund's "Jelly-Bean People," one of the works on view at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.
CAPTION: A re-creation of Nelson Mandela's South African prison cell is among the displays at the National Liberty Museum.