Philadelphia, the cradle of American democracy, has long stood as a symbol of liberty. It’s a quality we at the National Liberty Museum hold dear, defining liberty as the freedom to think and act as you choose, while respecting others’ right to do the same. Now, as we approach the November 7 mayoral election, it’s imperative that the city’s leadership prioritize an often overlooked, yet crucial driver of liberty: museums.
Civic participation and liberty
In Philadelphia, a city with 1.5 million residents, it’s likely that only slightly more than 5 percent (approximately 80,000 registered voters) will decide our next mayor. Although our closed primary system often leaves the choice to a small segment of the population, the beauty of democracy is that it can evolve. And what better place for this evolution to happen than in the birthplace of American democracy itself?
It’s crucial to recognize that voting is just one avenue of civic participation. Other vital components include volunteering, self-education, and engagement in civil dialogue. While voting is essential, people may be more inclined to participate if they feel a deep connection to their community. Museums and cultural institutions can play a pivotal role in facilitating this connection. At the National Liberty Museum, we craft exhibitions and programs that not only inform but also foster a sense of community, inspiring residents to actively participate in various aspects of civic life, including voting.
Museums, far from being simply sources for art and history, serve as safe spaces for nuanced, democratic dialogue.
As we approach Election Day, Philadelphia residents have an incredible opportunity to exercise their civic duties. Given the city’s vibrancy and diversity, the range of potential futures is immense, and I am genuinely excited about the possibilities that await us.
Beyond voting, ongoing civic engagement ensures that diverse voices are heard and considered. Museums, far from being simply sources for art and history, serve as safe spaces for nuanced, democratic dialogue. They offer an inclusive environment for visitors from all walks of life to engage in meaningful discussions about societal complexities and moral values. In fostering such a culture of openness and dialogue, we closely align with the democratic principles that Philadelphia stands for.
Cultural spaces as forums for democracy
As the leader of the National Liberty Museum, I firmly believe that museums serve a role far beyond being mere repositories for art, history, or science; they are the essential foundation of a thriving democratic society, crucial for fostering civic engagement and education. In an era where trust in major U.S. institutions is at an all-time low — with many crucial institutions measuring well below 30 percent — public confidence in museums remains high at 73.3 percent. Our museums not only inspire conversations about history, the arts, and culture but also cultivate discussions on our shared values and ethics, all of which are vital components of liberty. Consequently, they should be central to our city’s future planning.
Our museums not only inspire conversations about history, the arts, and culture but also cultivate discussions on our shared values and ethics, all of which are vital components of liberty.
At the National Liberty Museum, this mission guides our initiatives. We aim to create a welcoming space that actively encourages a wide range of perspectives. To further this mission, we create exhibitions and programs that concentrate on civic engagement, pluralism, and diversity of thought. The museum functions as a living lab, where visitors from all backgrounds can explore the practical applications of liberty in everyday life. We facilitate nuanced dialogue on complicated issues that matter, from privacy rights and freedom of speech to the roles and responsibilities within communities.
Our ultimate goal is to open minds and foster a balanced understanding — key principles on which the concept of liberty rests. By nurturing a culture of openness and dialogue, we affirm our alignment with the democratic values that are at the heart of Philadelphia’s identity.
A call to collective action
Historically, Philadelphia’s museums have struggled with inadequate City funding, a challenge that has hit smaller organizations like ours especially hard. We often find ourselves overshadowed by larger, more well-resourced museums. However, smaller institutions have unique strengths: We can act quickly, experiment with new ideas, and engage the community in a more immediate and impactful way. This imbalance in funding and recognition could shift if our next mayor understands and values the symbiotic relationship between well-supported museums and a thriving, educated citizenry.
Investing in cultural institutions is not just an investment in art or history; it’s an investment in the very fabric of our democracy.
Study after study has demonstrated the profound positive impact cultural spaces can have, from enhancing children’s cognitive abilities to increasing adults’ engagement with their community. By funding museums adequately, Philadelphia can become a city where exhibitions, programs, and events are as diverse and dynamic as its people. Imagine a pay-as-you-wish model where the city’s rich cultural tapestry is accessible to all, regardless of income.
It’s time for the city’s museums, galleries, and cultural centers, big and small, to unite as one voice, not just to air grievances — but to propose solutions. We are willing and ready to collaborate with Philadelphia’s cultural institutions and the new leadership to tackle societal issues, from educational reform to homelessness to safety, within the confines of our educational spaces.
The promise of a better Philadelphia
Investing in cultural institutions is not just an investment in art or history; it’s an investment in the very fabric of our democracy. Through targeted funding, collaborative solutions, and a focus on civic dialogue, we can create a Philadelphia that educates and engages its citizens, embodying the principles of liberty that our city holds dear.
As we approach the mayoral election, let us remember: Our strength lies in our unity, and the essence of that unity is our shared commitment to liberty and cultural enrichment. I urge the next mayor to take this to heart and invest in a brighter, more harmonious future for the City of Brotherly Love.
We are stronger together as one voice, championing a Philadelphia where liberty and culture flourish side by side.
Alaine Arnott is the CEO of the National Liberty Museum.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
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