This year’s vacation had me wanting to save money on travel so I could stay in a nicer hotel and have more to spend on entertainment and activities. But I still wanted to be far enough away from home to feel like I was really on vacation, and not just day-tripping.
Philadelphia fit that bill quite nicely.
Being the place where the United States was born (both times, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the creation and signing of the Constitution), it’s loaded with history. However, I decided to avoid the obvious. I deliberately avoided Independence Hall and the national icon of the Liberty Bell. I’d visited them on a family trip in my childhood. Instead, I went to museums in that neighborhood that hadn’t existed back then.
The National Constitution Center is an impressive place devoted to that document. The main exhibit gallery covers its ongoing history, and has a lot of interactive materials. You can be “sworn in” as President, “vote” for a recent (Eisenhower through Obama) president based on how you agree with their policy statements (the matchups are chosen randomly, so you get things like Clinton against Reagan or Eisenhower against Carter), or take a Presidential Trivia Quiz. I did very well on the quiz, missing only about four out of three dozen or so questions at the “Know-it-all” level. The Chronology part had a lot of items covering the Amendments – except for Prohibition. It’s absence was stark.
A special exhibit covered the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Seeing the many versions is quite enlightening. First drafts of the Fourth Amendment – now the Second (yes, there were two that were dropped; the one about Congressional pay raises was eventually ratified much, much later; the one about population and representation in the House was evidently left for Congress itself to deal with in its own rules) – make it pretty clear that they intended for the “well regulated militia” to be used in the defense of the nation instead of a standing army.
You will want to check out the regular performance in the Sidney Kimmel Theater. “Freedom Rising” is a short but intensely dramatic presentation on the first three words of the Constitution.
The newest museum in the area is the Museum of the American Revolution. It is exactly what is says – the main gallery is a chronological look at the Revolution, from the earliest beginnings at the end of the French-Indian War to the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and beyond. It’s designed so that you walk through it in chronological order, and is extremely comprehensive. There’s even a room devoted to the debates in the Iroquois Confederacy about which side they should support.
I didn’t see space for possible rotating exhibits, though. There are a number of side rooms and galleries, but they were all filled with things that looked like they’d be permanently on display (like Washington’s tent from Valley Forge). Unless they intend on subdividing the Children’s Activity Room (the “Patriots Gallery”). They’re new; they’ll figure it out soon enough.
While you’re in the neighborhood, spend some time at the US Mint – the largest coin making factory in the world. There’s a fine exhibit on the Mint’s history, but the main attraction is the passageway that takes you up and over the Mint floor where (if the timing is right) you’ll get to see the entire process of coin-making. Even if there’s little going on, displays in the passageway tell how coins are designed and made.
Fun fact: Any coins that accidentally fall onto the floor are no longer in “mint” condition, and must be collected with the “sweeps” of other bits of metal scrap and recycled.
And no, they don’t give out free samples. You can pay for them in the Gift Shop.
Though it’s the main attraction, there’s more to Philadelphia than history. The other side of Center City is where you’ll find Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a huge mall-like avenue that’s lined with science and art museums. I’ll tell you about the places I visited there next time.
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