Heroes as large as life
Philadelphia figures who pressed the fight for freedom "talk" to visitors at the African American Museum - the centerpiece of a $4.5 million makeover.
Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner strikes the orator's pose - lost in a book cradled in his right hand, gesticulating grandly with the left, with a massive library at his back.
At once, his eyes shoot up, searing straight ahead.
He has a visitor.
"I believe," Tanner begins, "that America and liberty are but one and the same thing . . ."
The A.M.E. Church's famous bishop, born in the days of Andrew Jackson, now talks to visitors from a life-size screen. At the African American Museum's new exhibit, "Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776-1876," Tanner, a fiery preacher and gifted writer, is one of 11 local historical figures brought to life on the panels of the Conversations Gallery, a linchpin of the museum's $4.5 million makeover. Today's official unveiling, auspiciously slated for the June 19 "Juneteenth" holiday, comes after more than three months of museum renovations.
In the Conversations Gallery, actors portray each individual, rendered in full color on flat-screen monitors placed throughout the area. Guests can interact with such abolitionists as Richard Allen and Absalom Jones by pushing a series of buttons next to each screen, prompting the figures to launch into selections from their personal narratives.
"They're very complicated stories; there's a lot of nuance to that history," said designer Gerard Eisterhold, whose past projects include the National Civil Rights Museum, the Rosa Parks Museum, and the Jurassic Park Discovery Center. "We're trying to show the people that the past we're talking about here is a lot different than they expected."
The virtual dialogue underscores a concerted effort on the part of administrators to cast visitors as active participants in the museum experience. The exhibit also includes an interactive timeline documenting local African American history from 1776 to 1876.
Alongside this display, a touch-screen monitor allows visitors to direct the overhead projector spotlight and voiceover narration to focus on a subject of their choosing, ranging from legal struggles to family histories. Legendary abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass - as well as lesser-known figures like Hercules, an enslaved cook for George Washington - are featured.
"It moves the museum into the 21st century," Romona Riscoe Benson, museum president and chief executive, said of the technology. "We wanted to have a level of experience at this museum that our visitors have not seen before."
Just a few years ago, such ambitious designs may have seemed like a pipe dream. In May 2004, the museum was nearly forced to shut its doors amid financial woes. Now, buoyed by $3 million in city funds and an additional $500,000 from Peco, the museum is looking to cast itself as a nexus of African American culture in Center City.
Beyond this, Benson hopes to attract and engage a younger generation in ways that the museum never could before the renovations.
In addition to the "Conversations" features, the new "Day in the Life" section, for example, allows children to follow the typical activities of various 19th-century civil rights figures painted on the walls and to answer questions about what they have seen. (Think Where's Waldo? meets The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.)
As part of the opening festivities this weekend, the museum is hosting Family Fun Days on Saturday and Sunday. Parents and children are encouraged to participate in historical scavenger hunts, storytelling and folk tales, and Congo-inspired music and dancing.
The significance of the opening date lends itself to even further celebration. Nationwide, today's "Juneteenth" holiday is intended to commemorate the day in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were informed of their freedom by Union soldiers. The day also marks the anniversary of the African American Museum's opening in 1976.
"What better day to start talking about audacious freedom?" Benson said.
Perhaps the most indelible visual at the revamped museum stands nearest the entrance, nestled between the interactive timeline and the front windows. There hangs a re-creation of John Trumbull's famous painting, Declaration of Independence. In the foreground - with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the rest of the Founders putting pen to paper in brilliant, full color behind them - a group of African Americans and American Indians is presented in a dull orange, a reminder that the document's "self-evident" truths fell far short of universal application in practice.
Chronicling the ways in which men and women of the day pushed against this social current, Eisterhold says, is a principal mission of the exhibit.
"There's an ancestry that people should really be proud of," he said. "Unless you know about it, how can you be?"
Juneteenth Special Events
Today-Sunday: African American Museum. This weekend only, there is free admission today through Sunday at the museum, 701 Arch St. General admission after June 21: $10; $8 for students (with ID), senior citizens and children ages 4-12; free for museum members. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. Information: 215-574-0380, www.aampmuseum.org.
Tonight: A Juneteenth Freedom Forum will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the Library Company, 1314 Locust St. It will feature a panel discussion of the African American struggle for freedom in the Civil War era and beyond. The conversation will be led by area history professors including Robert Francis Engs of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Varon of Temple University, and Randall M. Miller of St. Joseph's University. Information: 215-546-3181 or www.librarycompany.org.
Saturday: Storytelling and tours in Historic Germantown 1-5 p.m. Starting at 6401 Germantown Ave., visitors will see historic locales such as Cliveden, former home of one of the state's largest slaveowners, and the Johnson House, one of the city's few surviving "stops" on the Underground Railroad. Information: 215-844-1683 or www.freedomsbackyard.com.EndText