An enormous marble structure engraved with the text of the First Amendment used to decorate the facade of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Now, just over a year after the journalism museum’s closing, the slab is set to find a new home at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
“It was really important we found a publicly accessible place for the tablets to go on display,” Jonathan Thompson, vice president and chief outreach officer of the Newseum’s parent organization, the Freedom Forum, tells Washingtonian’s Daniella Byck.
Weighing 50 tons and standing 74 feet tall, the marble tablet is made up of multiple pieces, which are now being dismantled and placed in storage. The Philadelphia museum expects to install the slab later this year and hold a dedication ceremony in the fall as part of a programming series on the First Amendment.
“We are thrilled to bring this heroic marble tablet of the First Amendment to the National Constitution Center, to inspire visitors from across America and around the world for generations to come,” says museum President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen in a statement. “It’s so meaningful to bring the text of the First Amendment to Philadelphia, in a majestic space overlooking Independence Hall, where the original Constitution was drafted, as a permanent monument to the five freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition.”
The Newseum, a museum devoted to the history of journalism, closed at the end of 2019 due to financial problems, as Peggy McGlone and Manuel Roig-Franzia reported for the Washington Post at the time. It had been in operation since 2008, hosting exhibitions on topics including news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, presidential photographers and editorial cartoonists, as well as housing a permanent 9/11 Gallery. (Several traveling exhibitions featuring artifacts from the Newseum’s collections are currently on view across the country.)
In January 2019, the Freedom Forum announced plans to sell the Pennsylvania Avenue building to Johns Hopkins University, which is renovating the space for use by some of its graduate programs. Per Daniel J. Sernovitz of Washington Business Journal, the Baltimore-based university completed its $302.5 million acquisition of the former museum building in June 2020. The Freedom Forum, whose mission is to “foster First Amendment freedoms for all,” retained ownership of the iconic marble tablet, which it has now offered to the Constitution Center as a gift.
When workers began dismantling the tablet in February, photographs of the process captured by photojournalist Megan Smith went viral. Some social media users seized on them as a metaphor for a supposed decline in freedom of the press or journalistic integrity, as Mimi Montgomery wrote for Washingtonian.
As the Associated Press points out, the tablet’s new location in Philadelphia is an iconic spot for American history. The slab will overlook Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were adopted; the Liberty Bell and First Bank of the United States are located nearby.
“We are incredibly pleased that the tablet will have a prominent new home at the National Constitution Center where it can be part of their efforts to increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution,” says Jan Neuharth, chair and CEO of the Freedom Forum and a member of the National Constitution Center’s board of trustees, in the statement.
The tablet, made of Tennessee pink marble, was first installed at the Newseum in 2007. It contains the full text of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”