Inquirer Editorial: Springsteen exhibit OK, but what's next?

Posted: February 19, 2012

Last week's opening of an exhibit on Bruce Springsteen at the National Constitution Center raises a question: What in Asbury Park does Bruce Springsteen have to do with the Constitution?

True, both were born in the same country (the U.S.A.) and, in fact, within about 50 miles of Trenton. And both were born to run (in the Constitution's case, a nation). And, of course, both continue to enjoy rock-star adulation despite advanced age and significant imperfections.

Springsteen is not the most incongruous figure the Independence Mall museum has featured. At least the Boss' title was, in the American tradition, earned rather than inherited - unlike that of Princess Diana, the subject of another recent Constitution Center exhibit. What, after all, could be more diametrically opposed to American democracy than British royalty?

New Jersey royalty is a different story, and if the Constitution Center had to feature a popular musician, Springsteen is much more appropriate than, say, Lady Gaga (another aristocrat, judging by her sobriquet). As rock stars go, Springsteen is an avid student of American history and society. His often politically pointed lyrics might get him in trouble in a country without the First Amendment.

Short of arguing that "Cover Me" foresaw the debate about the constitutionality of a health-insurance mandate, the museum has tried valiantly to emphasize Springsteen's relevance to its mission. An ad invites visitors to "celebrate freedom of expression at the must-see exhibition." The gift shop sells T-shirts that read "Freedom Rocks" underneath a silhouetted rock band composed of great American statesman (drums: "Honest" Abe Lincoln).

The very American imperatives of capitalism are clearly pertinent here. Pop-cultural exhibits no doubt help the Constitution Center sell tickets. And the resulting crowds may well glance over its handwritten congressional copy of the 13th Amendment as well as Bruce's original handwritten draft of "Atlantic City."

But the Constitution Center is also congressionally chartered and has benefitted from no small amount of government support - all of which should be considered carefully before anyone dreams up an exhibit about, say, American Idol. For a museum devoted to serious ideas, forgetting that would be a suicide rap indeed.

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