October 30, 2014

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

 

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He earned the title of “The First American” for his early campaigning for colonial unity; as an author in London for several colonies; then as the first United States Ambassador to France. (Edward Savage, from the collection of Dr. Gary Milan).

As political debate reached a fever pitch in the crucial weeks leading up to the pivotal 2012 Presidential election, the Skirball Cultural Center opened a major new exhibition anchoring a season of “Democracy Matters at the Skirball.”

Organized by the Library of Congress and seen by some two million visitors during its four-year run in the Library’s historic setting, “Creating the United States” will be on view at the Skirball through February 17, 2013.

In this extraordinary exhibit, the raw and sometimes messy creation of Democracy is on display to illustrate the tumultuous few years when the founders were literally creating the government one eloquent document at a time.

The exhibit is broken into four sections: “Creating the United States;” “Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action, 1960­–1980;” “Free to Be U.S., a First Amendment Experience;” and the “Lincoln Spotlight.”

CREATING THE UNITED STATES

PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SKIRBALL CULTURAL CENTER

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

Frederick Douglass was a key figure in the abolition of slavery in the United States. His motivation was based on his early life as a slave and his conviction that all people are equal in the eyes of God. One of his favorite sayings was, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

This exhibit focuses on the founding documents of our republic—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—and reveals how imagination and vision played critical roles in the formation of our nation.

“The Skirball Cultural Center is proud to present this adaptation of Creating the United States in its only appearance outside Washington, D.C.,” said Robert Kirschner, Skirball Museum Director. “Rarely has the history of American democracy been so vividly assembled for public exhibition in Southern California.”Among the more than 170 objects on view are rough drafts, original documents, and autograph correspondence by George Washington, John Adams, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson; first editions of Common Sense and The American Crisis by Thomas Paine (1776); engravings by Paul Revere; a William J. Stone copy of the Declaration of Independence (1847); and a Members Edition of the United States Constitution (1787).

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

A rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, June—July, 1776, Manuscript, Thomas Jefferson papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Although at some point Jefferson labeled this manuscript as the “original Rough draught,” it was not his first drafting of language for the Declaration. Portions of what Julian P. Boyd, the founding editor of the “Papers” and a student of the writing of the Declaration, called this version Jefferson’s “composition draft.”

Viewing the documents under low lights, one is struck by how poignant and articulate these men were as they spoke through their documents and letters, requiring them to think carefully before committing their ideas to paper.

That is not to say that there aren’t revisions, as evidenced by the extensive rewrites and revisions to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. One of the challenges facing the founders was the balance between the rights of individual states and the authority of a centralized federal government. The United States could well have turned out very differently than it did, with reverberations that would be felt to this day.

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

Original print of “World Peace,” by Edward Newman on display at the Skirball Cultural Center through Feb. 17, 2013.

Creating the United States will be complemented by two exhibitions; Decades of Dissent, a gallery of 25 iconic protest posters and “Creating the United States” a hands on, interactive display focusing on key Supreme Court decisions.

What struck me as especially noteworthy were personal objects such as Lincoln’s original leather briefcase complete with remnants of sealing wax from documents inside and an extremely rare manuscript copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (“With malice toward none, with charity for all...”).

Another extraordinary treasure is considered to be the last known photograph of Lincoln by Alexander Gardner taken just weeks before his assassination.

Overall, this collection of papers, letters, photographs and objects is outstanding and a true portrait of our young and still growing country, complete with all of the controversy, politics and infighting within the Congress. Yet, finally it is the eloquence of the hand written word and finally, the idea of creating a free, secular country that truly shines through. This exhibit is well worth the time to visit the galleries to see the origins of our extraordinary Democracy.

“What you learn about in these galleries is the effort to live up to the ideals that are stated in the Declaration of Independence has been a struggle and it's a struggle that's continuing,” Kirschner said. “That struggle is amply documented here."

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

Los Angeles artist Lorraine Schneider created the iconic sunflower on yellow background poster amid the slogan “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”

DECADES OF DISSENT

Democracy in Action, 1960-1980

Anyone over the age of 50 will recognize the posters in this exhibit. “Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action, 1960­–1980” displays more than 25 of the most iconic and compelling political art from the famously turbulent era of the 1960s and 1970s.

The exhibition spotlights California activism around diverse causes—including peace, ecology, labor, the women’s movement and civil rights—showcasing iconic images and slogans that served as vehicles for social change.

Famous manifestos such as “Black Is Beautiful,” “Make Love, Not War,” and the original “War is not healthy for children and other living things” (in English and Vietnamese), are displayed in their original vivid designs and bold colors.

FREE TO BE U.S.

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

Original print of “Peace” on display at the Skirball Cultural Center through Feb. 17, 2013.

Also on display is “Free to Be U.S.: A First Amendment Experience,” an interactive experience that probes key liberties and encourages visitors to consider their contemporary relevance. This exhibit asks questions and challenges the viewer to decide what they would do regarding key decisions of the Supreme Court.

Visitors can manipulate objects that allow them to question their values and come to understand just how different our country could have been, save for some key Supreme Court decisions. It also has a complete display of banned books, including “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Babar.”

LINCOLN SPOTLIGHT

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

Original print of “Make Love Not War” by Edward Newman on display at the Skirball Cultural Center through Feb. 17, 2013.

In addition, the Skirball’s permanent exhibition “Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America,” will feature a special “Lincoln Spotlight” during the run of the three temporary exhibitions. This spotlight presents rare original artifacts on special loan from the Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL.

What struck me as especially noteworthy were personal objects such as Lincoln’s original leather briefcase complete with remnants of sealing wax from documents inside and an extremely rare manuscript copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (“With malice toward none, with charity for all...”).

Another extraordinary treasure is considered to be the last known photograph of Lincoln by Alexander Gardner taken just weeks before his assassination.

Overall, this collection of papers, letters, photographs and objects is outstanding and a true portrait of our young and still growing country, complete with all of the controversy, politics and infighting within the Congress.

Yet it is the eloquence in the written word and finally, the idea of creating a free, secular country that truly shines through. This is a fabulous exhibit and well worth the time to visit the galleries to see the origins of our extraordinary Democracy.

“What you learn about in these galleries is that the effort to live up to the ideals that are stated in the Declaration of Independence has been a struggle and it's a struggle that's continuing,” Kirschner said. “And that struggle is amply documented here."

CREATING THE UNITED STATES AT A GLANCE

Democracy Matters at the Skirball

What: A fascinating look at the founding documents, some of them original, of our republic and how imagination and vision played crucial roles in the formation of the nation. The exhibition is part of “Democracy Matters at the Skirball,” an initiative that also involves three other simultaneous exhibits including a look at protest posters as vehicles for social change, the role of the First Amendment and a spotlight on Abraham Lincoln.

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Feb. 17.

Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles.

Admission: $10, $7 seniors and students, $5 children 2-12; free to members and children under 2.

For more information: skirball.org or (310) 440-4500. The Skirball Cultural Center is located at 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049. Free on-site parking is available except during Sunset Concerts; street parking is strictly prohibited. The Skirball is also accessible by Metro Rapid Bus 761. Museum hours: Tuesday–Friday, noon–5 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; closed Mondays and holidays.