A piece of glass is strong and durable, but at the same time, smooth and pristine. With one act of violence, however, it can be shattered into millions of pieces, making it virtually impossible to put back together.
At the National Liberty Museum, the nature of glass – as evidenced by the 125 figurines and towering pieces of art displayed there – has become a metaphor for human interaction.
"Glass best represents the fragile quality of our relationships with one another," said Irvin J. Borowsky, founder and chairman of the museum. "So easily broken, but so hard to repair."
The Olde City museum, which this year celebrates its five-year anniversary, has a large collection of exhibits that utilize glass, as well as photography and sculpture, in an effort to raise awareness about violence and racism.
The circular third-floor room housing the "Heroes of Liberty From Around the World" exhibit has a dark feel, with the bulk of its light coming from the enormous "Flame of Liberty," by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. With its reddish-orange flames curving in all directions, the 20-foot tall sculpture, which towers from the building's ground-floor gift shop, emits an amber glow around a room that also features recreations of Anne Frank's secret annex and the jail cell of former South African dissident Nelson Mandela.
Another display in the gallery depicts a cross-section of a house owned by the Pulcharski family in Poland during the Second World War. The top half is a nondescript room – with a bed and some scattered clutter – but underneath the wooden floor boards sit five people, constructed of a plaster-like substance, living in a hole, hiding from a surprise Nazi search. Such a frightening existence was reality for Felix Zandman, a Main Line resident who during the war lived with four other Jews, for 17 months, in the small space depicted by the display.
"The Pulcharskis risked their lives and the lives of their children," explained Marilyn Cohen, the museum's director of education. "Sometimes, we have to step out of our comfort zone to do some good in the world."
Located a few feet from the Chestnut Street entrance to the museum, "Chess Set," by Gianni Toso, shows a chess match between tremendously detailed glass figures of Jewish and Christian men and women throughout history.
"In our chess set, we have clusters in dialogue," said Cohen. "Jews and Christians – the pope and Queen Esther – talk about their differences rather than going to battle.
"It's a win-win for everybody."
One of the last exhibits a visitor sees highlights the amount of violence in film and on television, showcasing statistics such as "children see 8,000 murders on TV before they leave elementary school."
"We pose it as an issue," said Gwen Borowsky, the museum founder's daughter, who serves as executive vice president and CEO of the enterprise. The point is not to advocate for censorship, but "we want to teach kids how to make choices – good choices."
Change Through Education
Khalia Jones, 25, a counselor from Camp Image in West Philadelphia, noted that the kids in her care enjoyed their recent trip to the museum, even though it meant being inside on a gorgeous day in early summer.
"The kids have been very interested and asking a lot of questions," said Jones. "The tour guide was very thorough."
To celebrate Independence Day, which falls on Monday this year, the museum is hosting "Liberty Days," which began on June 26 and ends on July 4.
Special tours, as well as craft sessions, songs and storytelling – all with a patriotic theme – will round out a week's worth of events.
In establishing the museum, the 81-year-old Borowsky focused on shunning violence, hatred and discrimination in the world, something he faced growing up in South Philadelphia.
"I was turned down for jobs for being a Jew," he said of the past. "But I refused to change my obvious Jewish name – it just wasn't me."
One way the museum attempts to usurp prejudice is through its Teacher Training Institute, which allows educators to learn how to bring the ideas of anti-violence, conflict resolution and character education into the classroom. The two-year-old program is approved by the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to award teachers continuing professional education credits.
Five years after the fact, Borowsky remains confident in the museum's ability to make change.
"Everyone will claim that they are hate-free, but they still hold prejudices," he insisted. "We will help people shed them."
For information about July 4 events or museum exhibits, call 215-925-2800.