Museum Impressions: Independence Hall

September 12, 2019

On the first day of the AASLH Annual Meeting, I decided to not attend workshops and walk around Philadelphia to visit various sites. I mentioned in the previous blog post that I went to Philadelphia as a teenager with my family, and because it has been sixteen years since I visited, I decided it would be a better decision to explore the city. The first place I visited on the first day was Independence Hall where I participated in a tour led by the National Park Service Rangers.

Since my tour was not going to begin for about 10 to 15 minutes, I was able to explore the grounds and visit the Great Essentials Exhibit in the West Wing of Independence Hall. According to the website, the Great Essentials Exhibit displays surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States, along with the silver inkstand that, according to tradition, was used during the signing of the Declaration and Constitution. The copies that I saw were not signed since the ones signed are located in Washington, D.C., and while I was there a Park Ranger stated there were many copies made to be distributed throughout the colonies to spread the news of the Declaration and Constitution.

After visiting the exhibit, I went in line to wait with the group for the timed tour to start. I liked that one of the Rangers had a brief introduction before going in to remind people to not bring in food and drinks, and to not be on cellphones while on the tour. To me it showed that not only Rangers made sure history is being protected but they emphasized the importance of the history as well as the importance of engaging with the surroundings instead of calling and texting during the tour. We were then brought inside the East Wing of Independence Hall to sit down for a brief introduction of the history of Independence Hall and then we went onto the tour.

The group I was in was led outside to walk into the main building. Inside there were two rooms we went into to learn more about the Pennsylvania State House which is later known as Independence Hall. While it was known as the place where the Declaration of Independence was written and approved, there is so much more to this building’s history. According to the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania State House originally housed all three branches of Pennsylvania’s colonial government. The rooms we saw were the Courtroom of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Assembly Room.

We went into the first room which was the Courtroom of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. After taking pictures, our Ranger guide started to tell us more about the room and more history about Independence Hall. A couple of examples we were told about was that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania sat in this room in the 1700s. Another example was that on July 8, 1776, an act of defiance occurred here when a group of Pennsylvania militiamen stormed in and tore down British King George III’s coat of arms; then a hundred years later, visitors came to this room during the Centennial to experience the National Museum, a collection of artifacts celebrating the founding of the nation.

Once we were finished in the Courtroom, we went into the Assembly Room where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed. The Assembly Room later became a shrine to the founding of the nation with a proudly displayed Liberty Bell and original paintings of the Founding Fathers. The tour concluded in this room after about twenty minutes in each of the rooms previously mentioned.

I would have liked to see more of Independence Hall such as the Long Gallery and Governor’s Council Chamber located on the second floor. The Long Gallery served as a reception area for visitors meeting with Pennsylvania’s governor, and the Governor’s Council Chamber was where Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council met in this room in the 18th century then later was used as the location fugitive slave trials in the 1850s. There seemed to be at least a few opportunities to have further discussions about challenging the historical narrative that glorified the past briefly mentioned in the tour. While I was confused when I noticed how short the tour was, because this is one of the most popular landmarks in the United States there are numerous visitors the National Park Service bring through Independence Hall they would need to get each tour group through as swiftly and smoothly as possible.

Museums are moving forward to creating more engaging and interactive experiences to be more visitor-focused, and I wonder: should Independence Hall do the same and if so, what approaches should be done? I believe that there should be interactive opportunities at least on the property as another option to do while waiting for tours to begin like a pop-up museum that are easily moved for weather conditions. I do think that if one has not visited Independence Hall one should visit at least once to learn about the significance of it’s part in the birth of the United States and learn about the building beyond this significance.

Share your experiences. If you have visited Independence Hall, what were your experiences like?

Resources:

https://www.nps.gov/inde/index.htm

https://www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/independencehall.htm

https://www.nps.gov/inde/learn/historyculture/places-independencehall.htm

https://www.nps.gov/inde/learn/historyculture/places-independencehall-assemblyroom.htm

https://www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/westwing.htm

https://www.nps.gov/inde/learn/historyculture/places-greatessentialswestwing.htm

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