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Alum outlines Liberty Bell controversy

Karie Diethorn, chief curator for the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia
2:59 p.m., Nov. 10, 2004--“I had never been called a racist before. I was horrified. I came from this realizing that there are different perceptions of truth,” Karie Diethorn, chief curator for the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, said as she recounted the events that led to the controversy surrounding the relocation of the Liberty Bell within the park.

Diethorn, a 1984 graduate of the University’s Museum Studies Program, was the featured speaker for the Museum Studies Program’s Fall Forum lecture, Friday, Nov. 5.

Located in Center City Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, housing the Liberty Bell, is approximately 45 acres and has 20 buildings that are open to the public. The park’s buildings and museum contain artifacts, descriptions and explanations that interpret the events and lives of a diverse population from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the capital of the United States.

As chief curator for Independence National Historical Park’s museum, Diethorn became embroiled in the controversy that has flared up over the National Park Service’s decision to relocate the Liberty Bell over the site of President George Washington’s Philadelphia home and slave quarters.

Further enflaming the controversy, Diethorn said, was text being considered for the exhibit that failed to mention Washington’s slaves. “The park service’s initial museum design was very linear, upbeat and patriotic.”

The park service and local activists and historians disagree on how to commemorate the site. Local community historians and activists said the park service was missing the point as to what the Liberty Bell stood for, she said.

The controversy heightened after Gary Nash, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a radio interview said, "We have one of the most important historical sites in Philadelphia, which is being graded over, and everything beneath it is being buried and lost for all succeeding generations... And, millions of visitors are going to go into the Liberty Bell not knowing they are walking over the site of Washington's executive mansion, indeed walking over the slave quarters he built at the rear of the house.... We have here a conjunction of liberty and slavery on the same site!"

Soon after that, Stephan Salisbury and Inga Saffron of The Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial titled, "Echoes of slavery at Liberty Bell site." It began, “Historians say George Washington kept slaves there. They've asked to have the site studied, but the park service says no.... In a year, when visitors enter the new $9 million pavilion to view the Liberty Bell, they will tread directly over ground where George Washington's slaves toiled, slept, suffered and plotted escape during the eight years of his presidency.” The controversy took on heightened dimensions, and Philadelphia Mayor John Street called for a meeting with the park service.

“Defining what a place means and to whom those meanings resonate is what history is all about,” Diethorn said. “But, an emotional perception of a place can’t be challenged. What does an historian do when facts no longer form the basis of investigation,” she said. “Is there any such thing as historical truth?”

Now that park officials know what they are up against, they need help to cope with it and make the right decisions, she said. There is still no agreement as to where to relocate the Liberty Bell or how to tell its story.

"There are 3.2 million visitors to the Liberty Bell every year, only 25 percent of them are local, the rest are foreign or from other parts of America," she said. "There is a power inherent in a place. Symbolic places need interpretation that enhances their power. A place at the corner of Sixth and Market provokes the need for getting the story right."

Article by Barbara Garrison
Photo by Kathy Atkinson

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