(Photo credit: Liberty Bell Center, courtesy The West End, Flickr Creative Commons)
So yesterday I started talking about the Liberty Bell and noted how hard it is to get a handle on its significance. In another post I’m going to try and rectify that. But first, I want to say something about how the bell is displayed to the public.
First off, it’s important to realize that the Liberty Bell does not hang in the tower or the steeple of Independence Hall. Instead it is housed in what is called (naturally enough) the Liberty Bell Center, a one-story building on the other side of Chestnut St from Independence Hall. That brings me to the first thing that often confuses visitors to Philadelphia that know nothing about what they’re going to see. They get to Independence Mall (the large, open green space between Fifth and Sixth streets); they see Independence Hall, look up at its steeple, and see a big bell up there. So naturally they ask, “Is that the Liberty Bell?” No, it’s not. A popular follow-up question is, “Is it a replica, then?” Nope, it’s a whole other bell: it’s called the Centennial Bell (more on that later).
Visitors are then directed to a long, glass-sided building running alongside Sixth St, between Chestnut and Market streets. That’s the Liberty Bell Center. That’s where they’ll find the Liberty Bell. This “bell center” was completed in 2003, and it has provided the bell with its home for the past 10 years. Sharp rises in tourism to the park has led the park service to rehouse the bell in two progressively larger structures. In 1976, the bicentennial year, it was moved to a Liberty Bell Pavilion, before being moved again to its current home in 2003. Prior to 1976 the bell had been displayed on the floor of the bell tower in Independence Hall itself.
After a security check at the north entrance to the bell center, visitors get to go inside and see the Liberty Bell—but not immediately. Some people will look around the glass and stone interior on entering and immediately ask, “Where’s the bell?” It’s not at the entrance; it’s at the other end of the building. In fact, when you enter the bell center, the park service confronts you not with the bell but with a museum, in the hope that you might stop and learn something about the bell you’ve come all this way to see. The museum exhibits are presented in sequential order, starting with the bell’s origins and leading up to the present day. They include original bell-related artifacts, lots of helpful interpretive signs, and an 8-minute video presentation telling the story of the bell. You have to pass by each of them in turn as you progress up the long, narrow building toward the actual bell.
The bell chamber itself—the section of the Liberty Bell Center that houses the bell—is quite an impressive space in its own terms. The bell is placed out in the open, hanging on its yoke between two metal posts at the center of the chamber. Behind it, huge glass panels frame Independence Hall, the bell’s old home. (Note that you can get a good view of the bell from outside via these glass panels, though most people prefer to go inside and see the bell up close.)
I believe the original vision for the bell chamber was to encourage visitors to spend a few minutes engaging in quiet contemplation of this national icon. That might be possible in the depths of winter—January and February—when park visitation is at its lowest. But for much of the year quiet contemplation is not going to be an option; instead, heavy visitation means the Liberty Bell Center oftentimes resembles a large schoolyard full of noisy kids (and adults). If you’re lucky you might get a brief moment of relative peace and quiet at the bell; but more often, you’ll be dealing with scores of people trying (noisily) to get their pictures taken at the bell.
The museum exhibits and displays are genuinely interesting and worth checking out, but the building overall remains a somewhat stark affair. Its brick floors and stone sides do not convey a sense of comfort. There is no proper seating and—important, this—no toilets. People sometimes get a little confused and upset by this. Especially at the height of the summer, visitors sometimes have to stand in line for 20 minutes or more to go through a security check—a procedure made necessary after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and unforeseen when the building was designed. The original idea was to just allow people to file through from one end to the other as quickly and efficiently as possible, with park rangers on hand to answer questions, maintain order and safety, and gently move people along. It was never meant to be a place to dawdle. But the security checks have created an unwelcome bottleneck in a very high-traffic park exhibit. It’s certainly understandable that visitors, after having been forced to stand outside in the hot sun for a long period of time waiting to get in, might want to be able to take a seat in the air conditioning and use a rest room. It’s even more understandable when they have grumpy kids in tow. But these are not options at the Liberty Bell Center. Be warned.
This is all a little unfortunate, but the bell center has to operate this way, given the volume of traffic this relatively small structure has to cope with. Currently the center has to accommodate almost two million visitors a year. On some days it will see up to 12,000 people walking through its doors. Could you imagine trying to provide rest room facilities for that many people? Heavy foot traffic, especially from multiple tour groups, can cause a serious crush of people around the bell itself. The noise can get overwhelming at times, especially when school groups are involved. Park rangers are sometimes forced to clear out such large groups.
So if you’re visiting the Liberty Bell and you do manage to grab one of these moments of quiet reflection at the bell, savor it. They don’t come around all that often.