After a daylong meeting yesterday that effectively ended the controversy over the depiction of slavery at Independence National Historical Park, officials said that exhibits in and around the new Liberty Bell Center will discuss slavery as it once existed in Philadelphia and the nation.
As a result, the story of the Liberty Bell will acknowledge the nation's complex and contradictory roots in freedom and slavery, National Park Service officials said.
This represents a major departure from the current bell story told by park rangers, which focuses almost exclusively on the bell's presence during the Revolutionary War era, as a symbol taken up by abolitionists prior to the Civil War, and as an international symbol of freedom.
The new emphasis also represents a successful effort on the part of numerous historians and scholars who lobbied the Park Service to expand its discussion of the nation's roots in slavery using the rich history embedded in the soil of Independence Mall.
That history attracted wide public interest when it was reported that the bell's new home, under construction along the east side of Sixth Street between Market and Chestnut Streets, is near the house occupied by slave owner George Washington during his presidency from 1789 to 1797.
Washington quartered eight slaves behind the Market Street house, known as the Executive Mansion, and visitors to the bell will walk over ground where presidential slaves once lived and toiled. The house was demolished in the 1830s.
After yesterday's meeting, David Hollenberg, associate regional director for the Park Service, said the historians' comments would lead to a richer park experience.
"I believe we can accommodate this wonderful input... into the exhibit in a way that won't have serious implications for the budget or the schedule," Hollenberg said.
The entire Liberty Bell Center is expected to cost about $12.6 million.
"The historians wanted a meeting to speak with the Park Service about the interpretive possibilities at this site," said Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph's University. "Many people thought we were losing the opportunity to expand the interpretation... and that we were losing stories especially important to America, in particular stories related to the struggle of freedom vs. unfreedom.
"The historians weren't there to provide text," Miller continued. "The whole dynamic of the meeting was to grab themes... to help visitors have a richer experience."
Dennis R. Reidenbach, assistant superintendent of Independence Park, said the Park Service would take the ideas tossed around at the meeting and come up with a means to bring them to life. That means reworking the interpretive ideas for the Liberty Bell Center to include a fuller discussion of slavery.
It also means fleshing out the outdoor interpretation of the Executive Mansion.
The Park Service has rejected the idea of reconstructing or outlining the first presidential residence - ideas broached by some scholars. Reidenbach and Hollenberg said an outline would probably prove confusing. They also said the exact floor plan of the house was still conjectural.
Still, they vowed, the mansion will not be slighted.
"It is clear this is a compelling story that visitors are interested in," Reidenbach said.
Park Service officials will try to come up with new broad interpretive plans over the next few weeks. More meetings with historians are possible, officials said.
"Nobody is scrapping anything," Miller said, alluding to the Park Service's plans. "We're looking at new thematic possibilities such as freedom and unfreedom as a principal theme that would course through the exhibition. Now it goes back to the Park Service."