Freedom's Just Another Word for Another New Museum
 -by Lynn Becker

[April 19, 2006] New York couldn't get its Freedom Museum off the ground. Chicago's is already open.















In New York, a Museum of Freedom was driven out of the World Trade Center site by a vocal band of relatives of 9-11 victims who vetoed honoring freedom because it risked giving voice to views they might disagree with. Chicago's Freedom Museum, on the other hand, made it to the finish line last week, due to the commitment and paternalistic guidance of the McCormick Tribune Foundation. It comes as no surprise, then, that the museum includes a large panel dedicated to the newspaper's patriarch Robert R. McCormick that manages to laud the Colonel's dedication to the first amendment even as it sweeps under the rug the corrosive effect his virulent red-baiting had on civil liberties.

But let's talk about the architecture for a moment. The museum is housed in a low-rise annex to Hood & Howells' landmark 1925 Tribune Tower that had a Hammacher-Schlemmer store as its most recent tenant. Despite being studded, like the Tower itself, with fragments taken from many of the world's most famous buildings, the smaller building has a grace and modesty that provides a good foil to its adjoining Mag Mile Rouen wannabe.

The 10,000 square foot facility, designed by VOA Associates, is a two story space dominated by a large central atrium, complete with sweeping staircase, which is saved from blandness by two things. The first is architectural necessity, a structural column about a third into the atrium that is connected by long and short beams to provide an angular counterpoint to the curving edge of the balcony-like second floor. The second is 12151791 , the spiral sculpture by Peter Bernheim and Amy Larimer. Named after the ratification date of the 1st amendment, it rises the full height of the atrium and consists of a series of stainless steel plates, eventually to number up to 1,000, strung from vertical cables. Punched into each plate is the text, set in light, of "a historical record of freedom.." To these age-challenged eyes, they were a bit of struggle to read, but there's no question the sculpture creates a striking presence, looking like a book whose silver pages have been dispersed in a strong gale. ("The answer, my friend . . . .")

The atrium is all white, with drop ceilings. The open ceiling and exposed ductwork of the second floor is painted black. There's a couple of incongruous - and pointless - appliqués of travertine. And there's a bit too much gray. When it serves as a slim frame for the exhibits, it's tolerable, but as the predominate color in the small first floor Freedom Theater, it's dark, drab and depressing in an uber-corporate kind of way.

It's the exhibits themselves, designed by Gallagher & Associates, that enliven the space with vibrant color - a glowing emerald wall along the first floor, and strong hues dominating the exhibits on the second level. Lots of orange. Every effort has been made to make the exhibits visually compelling, from large flat-panel monitors and elongated LED message boards streaming quotes (green) and headlines (red) on freedom, all giving the exhibits, which almost inevitably consist largely of content placed on a succession of vertical panels, a sense of life within VOA's cool wrapper. It's all very middle-of-road, but, in this case, that's not a bad thing, despite my prejudice that any museum dedicated to freedom should include at least a smidgen of visual anarchy.

The $5.00 entry fee is less than the $7.00 than the museum's executive director David Anderson was talking about last January, and on the first Saturday after opening, there was a steady stream of visitors, although the Freedom's Future exhibit, a roomful of computers offering interactive quizzes, remained completely empty during the entire time I was there. Another exhibit covers the history of the development of freedom from the1600's on, and there's a recording studio where visitors can leave their own thoughts on exactly what freedom is.

"Some 30% of high school students in one poll," says Anderson, "believe that newspapers need to obtain permission from the government prior to publishing stories. It sends a chill down my spine. Our intention is to avert apathy, and educate students and adults as they come through the museum, so that we can reverse what we see as an unfortunate trend."

Add in general public apathy to the hostility to the press and mania for secrecy on the part of the current administration of George Bush (endorsed, of course, by the Tribune in both elections), it's clear the museum has its work cut out for it, and it labors hard to make the installations interactive and user-friendly. The Closer to Home exhibit allows you to listen to banned records from throughout the 20th century, from Billie Holiday to Screaming Jay (I put a spell on you.) Hawkins You can also vote your opinion on several landmark cases of broadcast censorship (although you don't actually get to see or hear any of them) that range from Uncle Miltie (Berle),to George Carlin's seven dirty words, right up to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. I have to admit being smitten by the furor over Mae West's 1937 appearance on radio's number-one-rated Chase & Sanborn Hour, where she ad-libbed innuendoes with the program's star, ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. ("You’re all wood and a yard long . . . ) that saw her banned for life from NBC. The offended came out in droves, resulting in an orgy of apologies from McCarthy's putative master, Edgar Bergen, the network, and advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, but what endures is the priceless photograph that accompanies the exhibit, which depicts Charlie, dapper as always in his white tie and tails, but with his top hat hanging from the post of the overplush bed which he shares with Ms. West, his carved visage somehow managing to convey an aura of sated self-satisfaction that would be right at home on Howard Stern.






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© Copyright 2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.