National Liberty Museum: Resolute in Liberty as Ideological Tensions Infiltrate the Museum Sector 

The following is a guest post submitted by National Liberty Museum.     

For those unfamiliar with the National Liberty Museum (NLM), the name itself hints at our engagement in the myriad discussions surrounding the clash of extreme ideologies and the varied interpretations of liberty. Situated in Old City Philadelphia, the museum, which is both privately and publicly funded, faces the added complexity of embodying what a liberty museum should represent during a period of significant division within the United States and globally.  

At NLM, our mission is to connect, educate and inspire individuals to explore and advance the complex practice of liberty. Our goal is to cultivate a society that cherishes freedom of thought, civil discourse, respect for the rights of all and the essential pursuit of liberty. 

You may wonder what this entails for a museum. One visitor encapsulated it perfectly by stating, “This is a museum of ideas, not objects.” This reimagined direction has provided NLM with a distinctive opportunity to investigate the various dimensions a liberty museum can encompass. We are deeply involved in the realm of civics education, collaborating with contemporary artists from varied backgrounds and mediums worldwide, and generating original content.  

Our content, in essence, forms our collection, all aimed at fostering a plurality of viewpoints, thereby shaping individuals who are open to broadening their horizons and welcoming new ideas. However, the past two to three years have presented increasing challenges as political and ideological tensions have infiltrated the museum sector. 

In the past four years, there has been a notable evolution within the museum sector concerning the interplay of politics and funding. This evolution has intensified over the last two years, presenting the risk of us unintentionally echoing the divisive trajectories of higher education and the media. In my tenure as CEO of the NLM navigating the landscape of financial viability, I’ve been consistently confronted with the prerequisites set by federal, state and local grants as well as foundations, which often hinge on alignment with DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) initiatives.  

These mandates are not only prescriptive but also subject to ill-defined language with shifting interpretations, demanding a strategy that conforms to multiple and sometimes conflicting definitions of what constitutes “a more equitable museum.” Failing to meet these varied criteria could mean forfeiting essential funding—placing the museum in a precarious balancing act between mission alignment and operational sustainability. 

As a result, a dilemma arises in reconciling how any museum can faithfully meet these varying definitions and execute them successfully. The blunt truth is, we cannot. Attempting to do so leaves us straddling the line between insincerity and misconception. This insistence on uniform adherence to a changing and elusive standard is not only difficult but counterintuitive to fostering true diversity

Conversely, political agendas have also permeated from the opposite political direction. An example of this is West Virginia’s House Bill 4654, which employs legislative power to dictate what a museum can exhibit, predicated on a subjective notion of “obscenity”—a term left undefined by the bill. This ambiguity threatens to undercut a foundational American principle: freedom of speech. Such legislative overreach endangers the ability of museums and their professionals to present a spectrum of provocative and thought-provoking works, crucial for stimulating creativity, critical analysis and a well-informed populace. 

The critical dilemma NLM faces is: how can we maintain fidelity to our mission and provide quality civics education to young people in a time when the essence of a true liberal democracy seems to be eroding? We find ourselves having to navigate between funding dependencies, which may compel us to lean toward certain political stances, and the threat of being ostracized for not conforming to another.  

These pressures not only influence financial stability but also directly impact our educational endeavors. We might find ourselves self-censoring to avoid closure. It is our duty to the forthcoming generation to critically examine these constraints and consider both sides of the ideological debate, ensuring that we do not compromise our educational integrity. 

In closing, I leave you with a reflection and a call to action. The National Liberty Museum stands at a crossroads, emblematic of the broader museum sector, where the preservation of a liberal democratic ethos is both our challenge and our mandate. In an age where ideological forces from all directions vie to reshape the narratives within our walls, we must steadfastly adhere to our mission: to instill in our visitors—especially the next generation—the principles of liberty, civics and the courage to entertain a plurality of ideas. 

The museum, as a sanctuary of ideas, has the unique power to transcend the fray of political squabbles and serve as a forum for deep, critical engagement with the very tenets that underpin our society. Our content is more than our collection—it is a living, breathing dialogue with history, culture and the promise of democracy. 

We call upon our philanthropic partners to stand with us in a vital mission: to champion democracy through education. Support that honors the mission of museums will enable us to maintain spaces that not only allow for freedom of expression and civil discourse but also embrace the challenging dialogue necessary for a shared pursuit of liberty.  

As we create these partnerships, we are not merely naming our commitment to democracy but actively living it, promoting civic understanding that is broad and deep. The National Liberty Museum remains steadfast in lighting the way through these complex times as a testament to liberty. 

Philanthropy Roundtable’s True Diversity initiative is an equality-based, holistic framework for embracing diversity. It values every person as a unique individual and empowers charitable organizations with the freedom and flexibility to advance their missions and help those in need. 

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