National Constitution Center finds opportunity in closure

5 minute read
The Constitution Center’s virtual tours include 360-degree views of four popular exhibits. (Image courtesy of the NCC.)
The Constitution Center’s virtual tours include 360-degree views of four popular exhibits. (Image courtesy of the NCC.)

Confronted with a pandemic-induced shutdown, staff at the National Constitution Center (NCC) responded nimbly. They shifted in-person programs to virtual, developed a free course in civic education, and initiated conversations about this moment in American history and democracy. The programs succeeded: traffic on the NCC website was up 86 percent in June compared with June 2019. Currently, the site draws about a million visitors a month and is the fourth most-visited museum website in the United States.

“Judging by the metrics, which are an impartial measure, interest in the Constitution is skyrocketing,” said NCC president and CEO Jeffrey Rosen. “There has been a steady increase of downloading programs, and in browsing the Interactive Constitution. Activity spiked after 2016 and has gone higher during the pandemic.”

Within days of closure, staff engaged quarantining students and adults with an introductory course on the US Constitution and virtual tours of popular exhibits. Town Hall discussions that would have taken place at the center, located on Independence Mall, convened online. Experts representing the ideological spectrum offered thoughts on the constitutional implications of public-health measures, freedom of expression, protests and public safety, justice and institutional racism, voting and election concerns, Supreme Court decisions, and state and federal struggles.

Policing, protests, racism, rights

As civil rights demonstrations surged around the country, the NCC programs featured a discussion on police defunding, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and the growing call to overhaul the criminal justice system. Participants included John Inazu, professor of law, religion, and political science at Washington University in St. Louis; and two members of the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing: Charles Ramsey, former Philadelphia and Washington, DC, police commissioner; and Tracey Meares, Yale University law professor and author.

In a subsequent program, officials Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Dave Yost of Ohio participated in Policing Reform: A Conversation With Two State Attorneys General, sharing perspectives on the defund movement, the use of deadly force, and how best to achieve reform. Ellison, a former member of the US House and a civi -rights attorney, is at the center of the national controversy inflamed by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Constitution in quarantine

The physical shutdown led quickly to an experiment in live online courses, thanks to Zoom and “dynamic” NCC education officer Kerry Sautner, Rosen said.

She created an eight-week schedule, with dual sessions designed for older students and adults and middle-school students. Consistent with the NCC mission to cultivate understanding of the US Constitution on a nonpartisan basis, classes examined specific amendments and clauses through historic judicial decisions, encouraging students to evaluate arguments using constitutional, rather than political, reasoning.

By May, when the class concluded, 30,000 learners were attending. Detailed and lightning-fast, the hour-long sessions provided insight into the Constitution’s influence on American life, and why it is so often at the center of political debate. Technology enabled students to post questions and chat in real-time, with Sautner serving as moderator-cum-traffic cop, controlling lively side discussions.

“It was so meaningful to teach live and see how hungry people are for vigorous constitutional debates,” Rosen noted. Taught by Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University and contributing editor to The Atlantic, and senior constitutional fellows Tom Donnelly and Nicholas Mosvic, the classes proved so popular that they will continue this fall. Going forward, Rosen said the center wants to increase participation among students in underserved school districts.

Clockwise from top left: Jeffrey Rosen, Charles Ramsey, John Inazu, Tracey Meares during the “Policing and the Constitution” program. (Image courtesy of the NCC.)
Clockwise from top left: Jeffrey Rosen, Charles Ramsey, John Inazu, Tracey Meares during the “Policing and the Constitution” program. (Image courtesy of the NCC.)

Make up your own mind

Transferring in-person programming to Zoom and YouTube offered several advantages. It became easier to schedule in-demand thought leaders virtually, expanded the potential audience, and enabled staff to quickly develop programs such as “Coronavirus and the Law,” “Why Does the Electoral College Exist?” and “How to Restore Trust in America’s Institutions.”

Conversations featured filmmaker Ken Burns, political commentator George Will, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Journalist Emily Bazelon talked about elections in America, and historian Eric Foner taught on the Reconstruction amendments. Audio and video of past presentations is accessible through the center’s media library.

Even before COVID-19, the NCC’s virtual presence was robust, centering on the Interactive Constitution, a research tool that enables anyone, anywhere to explore the document line by line, and through the drafting process. Available on the web and by a downloadable app, it brings together knowledge on the Constitution’s philosophical roots, evolution, application over time, and contains interpretation representing varied viewpoints. Commentary on each article and amendment is offered by two scholars; jointly they write about commonly accepted interpretations, and then contribute individual essays on areas of divergence.

Weekly We The People podcasts, moderated by Rosen, convene legal discussions of constitutional news, such as end-of-term Supreme Court decisions and, on July 2, a timely reflection on Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Independence Day speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

Other easily searchable materials include a blog, Constitution Daily, and its e-newsletter counterpart Constitution Weekly, which address breaking issues and historically significant dates.

The center also provides a trove of educational resources online for teachers and students, from classroom materials and lesson plans to professional development.

The strong response to the Constitution Center’s programming during closure affirms Rosen’s belief: “There is nothing more important in these polarized times than citizens having the opportunity to hear the best arguments on constitutional questions…so that they can make up their own minds,” he said. Looking ahead, information on those questions will continue to flow into the virtual space, even when the Constitution Center reopens physically.

What, When, Where:
The National Constitution Center's virtual programming is available online and is regularly updated and archived for on-demand viewing, reading, and listening. Additional content can also be found on their YouTube channel.

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