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In US, a museum which offers civic tips

The newly opened McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum aims at giving children a platform to discuss on topical issues.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2006 20:06 IST

Shopping may be the ultimate exercise in free choice. So it seems fitting that a new museum devoted to the concept of freedom is located adjacent to one of the world's leading altars to mercantilism.

The $13 million McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum opened on Tuesday amid Chicago's "Magnificent Mile" of swanky shops on Michigan Avenue.

"What we're trying to do is present freedom through the lens of the First Amendment, but not in a way that we're telling people what to think," said David Anderson, director of the museum.

The word freedom features frequently in US political debate, and the concept gets a workout at the museum.

Asked if the museum's content might be coloured by the current US administration's frequent use of "freedom" in its foreign policy rhetoric, Anderson said visitors should not sense any political bias.

"We've worked very hard to make sure that we discuss the issues we discuss in an unbiased way. We want to be ideologically neutral and let people make up their own minds."

Because the museum is aimed at schoolchildren, some of the topics it touches on -- abortion, civil rights, song lyrics -- may get oversimplified treatment, Anderson said.

But he said the museum will strive to remain contemporary, and staff are already contemplating including an exhibit explaining the current controversy over US immigration law, depending on how the issue plays out.

Museum attendance will rely in part on people's willingness to tear themselves away from the crowded stores on the "Magnificent Mile" and absorb a fast civics lesson.

Sponsored by the foundation created by the estate of Colonel Robert McCormick, the often autocratic owner of the Chicago Tribune newspaper empire, the sleek 10,000-square-foot museum (929-square-metre) opens in a wing of the grey stone gothic tower that houses the newspaper.

The space was formerly occupied by luxury gadget retailer Hammacher Schlemmer.

"We try to touch on freedom around the world," Anderson said. "We know we're going to have visitors from around the world and we know that America is part of a broader culture so you can't really discuss freedom in this country without a comparison."

For the $5 ticket price (student groups are free), visitors will receive a wide-ranging history lesson covering the origins of the US constitution and the Bill of Rights in ancient Greece and the Magna Carta, up to today's headlines.

It explores its topic with interactive plasma television screens and concludes with a video booth where visitors are urged to record their own views on freedom's significance.

Selections from the recordings will be broadcast on a screen facing the street, which may include opinions voiced by poet Maya Angelou and former President George H.W. Bush, father of the current president.

The museum encourages participation by placing visitors in the middle of controversies and asking them to vote their beliefs on seminal free speech court cases.

From the rights of demonstrators to the censorship of books and song lyrics, visitors can compare their choices with others' as well as to the court decisions themselves.

The need to educate is there, Anderson said, citing a recent museum-sponsored survey that showed few Americans can recall the rights conferred just by the First Amendment in theUS Bill of Rights - free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion and the right to petition for a redress of grievances.

Some thought the right to own a pet was enshrined in the amendment.

First Published: Apr 13, 2006 20:30 IST