Freedom is often at the crux of American folk tales, patriotic songs, and symbols. Philadelphia is emblematic of that, being both the place America declared independence and a destination on the Underground Railroad. As such, freedom is not distributed equally. Whiteness, straightness, and maleness are the currency of freedom. Being cisgender and able-bodied purchases freedom. Plain old money purchases freedom. And those who don’t truck in those specific commodities face social and even legal repercussions for exercising the freedoms that America promises.
The Philly Freedom Exhibition, hosted by the National Liberty Museum, is a display of over 75 artworks by Philadelphia artists positing the nature of freedom and what it means to be free in Philadelphia in 2020 for a much more diverse swath of Americans.
The shutdown forced the museum to translate the exhibition into an online display, and rather than cobble together a slideshow of work, Manager of Exhibitions Meegan Coll used the platform Matterport to completely redesign the presentation, allowing a more realistic experience of art of many media, shapes, and sizes.
“This platform gives visitors a chance to get an up-close look at the art as well as...find out more about the individual artists,” Coll said. “The challenge is, of course, that people are seeing this very personal art from behind a screen, so we really tried to give as much of the feeling of actually being in the gallery as we could through the technology available to us.”
The end result isn’t the most user friendly, and involves some trial and error on the part of the viewer to navigate. But the overall feel of being an active part of the exhibition is well worth the struggle. No online platform is going to give the scope of an in-person event, but the 3D display and the graphics give off the atmosphere of reality.
Duality is the underlying theme of the exhibition. Conflicting viewpoints are present throughout. Odes to the freedom fought for by the founding fathers are displayed next to maps of the land they stole and images of the people they enslaved. If art is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, a single viewer can experience both. The duality of Philadelphia is celebrated as well: iconic images of the cityscape are interspersed with scenes from a city that only locals would know. Different artists depict religion, class, law enforcement, and the city itself as agents of both oppression and liberation, all presented without judgment.
Coll noted that as she and her collaborators designed the exhibition, they had Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom playing in their heads, so I had it looped while I explored the exhibition at home. It’s the perfect soundtrack to this celebration of Philadelphia.
What, When, Where, and Accessibility:
The National Liberty Museum’s Philly Freedom Exhibition can be viewed at the museum's website, where visitors can also read interviews with the contributing artists. The exhibition is offered on a “donate what you wish” basis, but requires registration. It will be available until February 13, 2021. The museum hopes to have the in-person version of the exhibition available to visitors when the museum reopens.
Image Description 1: An abstract-style painting centers a Black man with colors and symbols painted over some of his skin and hands, and clouds and flowers mask the top half of his face and decorate the background behind him.
Image Description 2: A mural painted in an indoor wall features strokes of colors, feathers as part of a dreamcatcher that is split by an impression of an officer in riot police gear. Cans of paint and spray paint sit on a tarp in front of the wall.