The paradox of slavery in a land of the free will be a major exhibition theme when the $12.6 million Liberty Bell Center at Independence National Historical Park opens next spring.
The text of the exhibition - which consists of a dozen large panels featuring words and images focused on the history and symbolism of the bell - has been completely reworked over the last three months and is nearing completion, according to National Park Service officials.
Bondage and freedom will now be presented as intimately entwined, and liberty will be shown as a profound and elusive ideal, the subject of continuous struggle. Images of manacled human beings will be seen in proximity to images celebrating freedoms achieved and desired.
This emphasis on the Liberty Bell as the embodiment of both the imperfect reality of American history and the stirring ideals of the new nation was nowhere to be seen in the plans of the Park Service just a few short months ago.
But a public outcry in the wake of reports that the new center will be located near the site where George Washington housed slaves during his presidency in the last decade of the 18th century led park officials to rethink their plans.
"This exhibition is still celebratory," said David Hollenberg, associate regional director with the Park Service. "But liberty is seen as the object of an ongoing struggle that is not over... . We're being more honest."
Numerous historians and citizens have also argued for commemoration of the house where Washington and his successor, John Adams, conducted the nation's business from 1790 to 1800. And a coalition of citizens has called on the Park Service to memorialize the Africans held in bondage at the site by President Washington.
The President's House, or Executive Mansion, was located near the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets. Washington quartered some of the eight slaves he brought to Philadelphia in an area near the stables behind the house. The site of those quarters is located directly in front of the entrance to the new Liberty Bell Center, which runs south of Market along Sixth Street.
The question of how to commemorate the house and its occupants has not yet been addressed, although park officials said they are now seeking ideas from designers.
Congress has weighed in on the issue as well. At the request of area lawmakers, new Interior Department legislation directs the Park Service to "to appropriately commemorate" Washington's slaves.
Dennis R. Reidenbach, acting superintendent of Independence Park, said he was not sure that Congress was telling the Park Service to put up a statue or some other kind of specific memorial.
"My interpretation of the language," said Reidenbach, "is that we make sure we are telling that story" of Washington's slaves and slavery in general. "It doesn't necessarily mean a memorial," he added.
Michael Coard, an attorney involved with a group calling for a memorial of some kind, said a meeting with park officials will probably take place this week.
"We're calling for a commemorative installation," Coard said. "We're not even using the word memorial."
The Multicultural Affairs Congress of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau is flatly calling for a memorial. In the congress' view, the city's position as a premier destination for African American visitors and conventions is at stake.
"It is our belief that a generic plaque or historical marker will not 'appropriately commemorate' those enslaved Africans," congress executive director Tanya Hall said in a prepared statement.
"We are in support of working toward the construction of a prominent monument or memorial to be placed in front of the new pavilion. In addition, we are committed to ensuring that the courageous lives of the eight enslaved are accurately interpreted and highly commemorated through authentic objects, artistic renderings, reenactments, traditions, scholarship, diverse languages and that electronic media and publications relating to them are provided for enlightenment and inspiration throughout the Park."
Edward Lawler Jr., an independent scholar whose research on the President's House did much to spark the current debate, said he did not expect any move to resolve the President's House issue until a permanent Independence Park superintendent is appointed, probably in the fall. Former Superintendent Martha Aikens left at the beginning of the summer to assume new Park Service duties in Washington, D.C.
The new Liberty Bell exhibition text and images are the result of discussions with historians, scholars and interested citizens. A group of nationally known scholars critiqued a nearly final version over the last several weeks. Park Service officials said their suggestions were useful and encouraging.
Officials said that once a final version of the exhibition is ready, they will seek some form of public review, possibly by placing the entire exhibit on the Internet. A public forum - perhaps a town meeting - is also under consideration to discuss ideas for commemoration of the President's House and its residents, Hollenberg said.
A redesign of the Liberty Bell exhibits is not expected to add significantly to costs, Hollenberg said. Whether the same is true for the President's House and a slavery memorial remains to be seen, he said.