As the citizens of the United States enter the home stretch of the quadrennial presidential elections, the Skirball Cultural Center is presenting four simultaneous exhibitions to show how the experiment in American democracy was born and how it is faring some 236 years later.
The shows, running in tandem for four months, from Oct. 11, 2012, to Feb. 17, 2013, will consist of “Creating the United States, “Decades of Dissent,” “Free to Be U.S.” and “Visions and Values.”
The undisputed stars of the of the “Creating the United States” exhibition are the three founding documents of the republic, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Each of the documents will have its own section, delving deeper into its historic and intellectual evolution.
Most of the rare and closely guarded material is on loan from the Library of Congress and will be seen here for the first time outside the nation’s capital.
During its four-year run at the Library of Congress, 2 million visitors viewed “Creating the United States.”
“A historical exhibit of this scope and depth has never been shown in Los Angeles before, and for most of us it will be the only chance to see it in our lifetime,” Skirball director Robert Kirschner said.
“Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action, 1960-1980” pays tribute to the great American tradition of protest through 25 graphic posters, including such well-remembered exhortations as “Make Love, Not War” and “Black Is Beautiful.”
“Free to Be U.S.: A First Amendment Experience” chronicles the struggles to establish, and then preserve, freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.
Today’s relevance to these long-ago struggles were emphasized as recently as President Barack Obama’s Sept. 25 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, when he sought to explain why the American government could not and would not ban an anti-Muslim video that triggered riots in the Arab world.
“Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with,” Obama said. “We do not do so because we support hate speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”
Enlivening the exhibition are interactive computer touch screens, inviting visitors to take on the role of a Supreme Court justice in ruling on First Amendment cases involving gun rights, gay marriage or obscenity confrontations.
Rounding out the presentations is the permanent Skirball exhibition “Visions and Values: Jewish Life From Antiquity to America,” which will be augmented by a “Lincoln Spotlight,” featuring objects on loan from the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.
Included is a rare manuscript copy, in Lincoln’s own hand, of his second inaugural address, the final paragraph of which opens with the famous words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all …”
Just before that sentence, Lincoln drew from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Psalms to declare, “As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”
Indicating some of the complexity in pulling together the many facets of the Skirball exhibitions, Kirschner said that getting the Lincoln inaugural address manuscript on loan required the special permission of the Illinois state legislature.
The overall theme of the exhibitions is “Democracy Matters at the Skirball,” and, Kirschner noted, “Here at the Skirball, we seek to live and practice American democratic ideals. We view this as an expression of our purpose as a Jewish institution. Our hope is that, by illuminating the lasting legacy of the founding documents, especially in shaping the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, “Creating the United States” will inspire visitors to participate in the democratic process today.”
He added, “The Constitution is not fixed in stone. It is a living organism, a living instrument for a people’s self-government.”
Many of the 170 objects on display at the Skirball were loaned by the National Museum of American History, Mount Vernon Estate, Huntington Library and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, as well as several private collections.
Accompanying the exhibits will be an impressive array of public programs, among them lectures, a “Soapbox Series,” a live concert, dramatic readings, school tours, a family sleepover and a “Student Takeover Day.”
In addition, there will be family workshops, gallery tours and discussions, a film series, a concert by a jazz quartet, a Chanukah family festival, panel discussions and adult education courses, among them “American Genesis: Triumphs and Failings of the Founders,” taught by Kirschner.
As a curtain raiser, Time magazine executive editor Nancy Gibbs will discuss her new book (co-authored with Michael Duffy), “The Presidents Club,” on Oct. 4.
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