Academic journal article Change Over Time

HOUSING THE BELL: 150 Years of Exhibiting an American Icon

Academic journal article Change Over Time

HOUSING THE BELL: 150 Years of Exhibiting an American Icon

Article excerpt

Mitchell/Giurgola's Liberty Bell Pavilion in Philadelphia was a small yet extraordinary modernist building whose short life encapsulated many of the complexities associated with postwar modernism: new expressive formalism, innovative technology, and singlepurpose design. Conceived, built, and functioning over a brief thirty-year period, the structure housed and displayed the most venerated symbol of American democracy after the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. While the display of the Liberty Bell as a symbol of national independence and freedom dates back to 1852 when it was moved out of Independence Hall tower and placed on display below, the concept of a special structure to house, protect, and exhibit the bell was first realized with this design. Going beyond these programmatic requirements, Mitchell/Giurgola Associates created a space that was contemplative as well as functional for the more than thirty million people who visited the bell during the Bicentennial and afterward.

Recent changes in architectural taste, exhibition methods, and post-9/llsecurity have redefined the design and display of objects and places including Independence Mall and the presentation of the Liberty Bell. Throughout the long history of venerating and preserving these forty-five acres of buildings and sites associated with the founding of the nation, the Liberty Bell has physically and ideologically moved toward a position of increasing focus, centrality, and interpretation. As these requirements have changed, so has the architectural setting for the bell. It is not the intention here to trace the complex story of the bell but rather the manner in which the bell has come to be displayed and how that display has shaped the bell's reception over time.

Displaying Relics and Remains

Firm matter melts, which She as mind renews, And She makes firm what fertile Mind has done.

Goethe, Im Beinhaus (1826)

The building of structures to house, protect, and display objects and sites of extraordinary significance is as old as architecture itself. The Temple of Solomon was built to house the Ark of the Covenant, a precious casket which contained Judaism's most sacred objects including the stone tablets, Aaron's rod, and the manna. Pausanias, writing in the second century AD, described a shrine in Olympia that housed a wooden beam from the House of Oinomaos.2 In these examples we find expression of a universal impulse to venerate material objects based on their special associations with the divine and the past. Such remains or relics (from the Latin reliquiai) have long been believed to hold special powers and provide the experience of physical nearness to the holy. Relic veneration has been a defining characteristic of many world religions including Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, and indeed the practice goes back to man's earliest efforts to understand and control the world through the use of talismans and other objects imbued with supernatural or spiritual powers.

The veneration of relics reached its greatest expression in Europe during the Middle Ages and the rise of Christianity. The faithful believed that the remains of Christ and the saints, the clothes they wore, and items they had touched possessed virtus or spiritual healing power. Possession of relics ensured prestige, power, and authority to their owners and by extension to their communities. Kings and popes legitimized their rule through the acquisition and presentation of such relics. The Venetians, for example, organized the fourth Crusade with the intent of pilfering the relics of their fellow Christians in Byzantium for their own gain.3 In 1239 Louis IX acquired the Crown of Thorns, the prize of a growing collection of holy relics for which he had Sainte-Chapelle built in Paris, a building that in turn became a prototype for other chapels, mortuary tombs, and relic caskets.

The need for protected display of these precious holy remains resulted in the development of the reliquary, the reliquary shrine, and later the reliquary chapel. …

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