Open to the Closed Era of Adoption?

New museum urges visitors to understand First Amendment freedoms

CHICAGO - It's the kind of museum that features a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a high school yearbook from a Japanese-American internment camp and the cover of 2 Live Crew's album "As Nasty As They Wanna Be."

The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, opening to the public Tuesday, is designed to help visitors, especially teenagers, understand freedoms. Its special focus is on those guaranteed by the First Amendment - freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.

The museum is filled with interactive displays, and visitors can create their own personalized Bill of Rights and listen to actors portraying the Founding Fathers detail the behind-the-scenes struggles over drafting documents like the Constitution.

At one display station, visitors can don headphones and listen to snippets of songs that were challenged or banned over the decades, including the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie," Olivia Newton-John's "Physical," and yes, 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny."

They're also urged to decide where they stand on thorny issues such as a minister who endorses a political candidate from the pulpit, a high school student who forms a Bible study group at her public school and governmental censorship during wartime.

"We're going to be able to have debates in here, but by the end, when people walk out that door, two people of opposite political ideologies can be in agreement that our freedoms are vitally important to us," said Joe Madeira, the museum's director of exhibits and programs.

The $10 million museum is the work of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, a nonprofit organization that makes charitable grants to support works in the areas of journalism, community, citizenship and education.

The foundation was created upon the 1955 death of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and the museum is located in the Tribune Tower on North Michigan Avenue.

It's a stretch of the city known more for being the "Magnificent Mile" of shopping than for its cultural attractions.

Organizers expect to attract a lot of school groups to the 10,000-square-foot, two-story museum - students and chaperones on registered field trips will get in free - but hope that they draw some of those shoppers, too.

Talk of a museum started in the late 1990s, but the original idea concerned a freedom of expression museum located at McCormick's former estate in suburban Wheaton, said David Grange, the foundation's president and CEO.

Other projects at the estate eventually crowded out that idea. "Plus, freedom of expression is a pretty mushy, fuzzy area. That's everything to everybody," Grange said.

As the foundation began preparations for its 50th anniversary last year, the idea for a museum got revived.

Board members wanted to differentiate their museum from places such as the National Constitution Center and the National Liberty Museum, both in Philadelphia, and the Newseum - moving to a new home in Washington, D.C. - which was designed to promote understanding between the public and the news media.

The result was a decision to focus on freedom, through the prism of the First Amendment, Grange said.

The museum does not shy away from the times when the United States, for some of its residents, failed to live up to the Declaration of Independence's promise of "unalienable rights."

One section examines times when social movements used the First Amendment in a struggle to secure other freedoms. The cases include suffragettes, civil rights activists, Japanese-Americans interred during World War II, and the Cherokee Nation, who went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to fight their forced relocation from the Southeast but still were subject to the heartbreaking "Trail of Tears."

"We wanted people to take away a feeling of responsibility," Grange said. "Hopefully when you visit this museum, you'll not only learn about issues and the importance of these freedoms, but you'll be a better informed citizen to make your own decision - whether it be to burn a flag or not burn a flag, whatever the case may be.

"Then as an informed citizen, take that back out on the street, take that back into your life and be a more involved citizen in the community and the country."

Despite all the audiovisual options and interactive displays, the first feature a visitor sees upon entering the museum is a piece of art.

It's a two-story sculpture consisting of 800 shimmering, stainless steel plates - each the size of a piece of notebook paper - strung together by cables suspended from the ceiling. On each plate is inscribed a quote about freedom by an everyday person, drawn from more than 200 years of American history.

A list of the quotes will be placed at the base of the sculpture and some will be available on the museum's Web site. The sculpture is entitled "12151791" - after the date the First Amendment was ratified.

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