Independence Mall: the Birthplace of Public History in America

Philadelphians know Independence Mall. Maybe, you’ve been there as a child during a field trip being shuttled between icons and monuments. A past that you were probably in no way interested because Becky was pulling your hair or Jimmy was shooting spitballs at you. As a non-Philadelphian, Independence Mall seems different. It’s what makes Philadelphia special. As an outsider, specifically a Canadian, Philly is known for three things: cheesesteaks, Rocky, and the Constitution.

Today’s experience broadened my view of the Mall as both a new Philadelphian and historian.

We began our walk in front of Independence Hall (well, technically behind it, but who’s judging) and made our way to the American Philosophical Society’s former home and current home. Here, we are introduced to Mr. Charles Wilson Peale and his museum. Peale’s vision birthed the first true public museum in America. In his museum, he attempted to answer three questions “that all subsequent history museums would face: what to collect, how to display it, and how to teach.” Little did he know that this approach to display of history could later be applied to the entire area surrounding his former Long Room gallery.

To answer the “what to collect” question in regards to our current day Mall, we wandered the streets and took in the sites. Independence Mall has “collected” a variety of museums and monuments (which we viewed from the street) from the hallowed Independence Hall  to the Constitution Center, and the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Liberty Bell Pavilion, the President’s House monument, and a forthcoming Bible Museum.

On how to display it, the park is clearly topped with two focal points, the valuable bookends—Independence Hall and the Constitution Center. These are the most important features that the public should see, at least in the eyes of the planners who developed the park after WWII. In Peale’s sense, these buildings are the top of the Linnaean order. Wandering around the former Old State House, it was hard not to feel what Jill Lepore discusses in her book Party Like It’s 1773. A sense of actually being apart of the Founding with the Fathers of the country, a sense of non-linearity. But, to blast this feeling of occupying the same space of the Founding Fathers comes the NMAJH, which stands between the two buildings, and is emblazoned with a message from Washington boldly claiming that there is no place for bigotry and persecution in his new country (oh George, if only).

Fittingly, perpendicular to the NMAJH, is the President’s House monument. It’s home, directly in front of the beacon of freedom for all Americans, the Liberty Bell, is a reminder that freedom was certainly a term of relativity in the 18th-century. One cannot help but be sucked back into the non-linear version of history, where the oppressed feel the tightening noose of the ruling class. This fact is especially apparent as you step, quite literally, in the footsteps of Washington’s own slaves who escaped.

The “teaching” aspect of the Mall was experienced by us only in passing. We got a sense of the importance of the Founders and their Constitution; however, to
fully engage in the education capabilities of the Mall, you must venture into its various museums. If you can learn one thing from the area, as a museum itself, it is that America’s past is fraught with tension between the virtuous Republic, as imagined
by the Fathers, and the Constitution which oppressed and freed. Peale’s dream was to create a “Great School of Nature,” and the Mall that his former museum stands upon is a testament to his
need be orderly, scholarly, and entertaining. The “Nature” Peale sought was a hodgepodge of all that he constituted as important, but the current Mall has it’s obvious directives of “Nature” that are constantly in flux.

In a way, Peale got his wish. Scattered around his former museum’s home are the petrified bodies of the great statesmen of his time: Washington in front of the museum’s second home and Franklin atop the Philosophical Societies new home. Sure, they aren’t real preserved remains, but the marble version seem to have a bit more longevity—and a lot less morbidity.