I’ve lived in Northern Virginia for about three years now and it’s downright shameful that it has taken me this long to finally make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia–an easy 3-hour drive. As a historian of the American Revolution, an avid viewer of 1776 the Musical, and as John Adams’s #1 fangirl, Philadelphia has been at the top of my “to go” list for years. However, research and life have gotten in my way. But April gave me what is quite possibly the best reason to put gas in the Mazda and have a weekend getaway. Oh thank heaven, the Museum of the American Revolution finally opened!
The Museum of the American Revolution has been a long time coming. I have literally counted down for years waiting for this museum to open–and for my chance to play Food Network and decide for myself if Geno’s or Pat’s had the better cheesesteak.
Going into the museum I knew I would view everything from the perspective of three different audiences: A public history student; a loyalist/early America scholar, and a general enthusiast. The public history student in me hoped for an innovative museum on the cutting edge. The loyalist/early American scholar wanted enough attention paid to all parties of the era. The general enthusiast I’ve been since a kid wanted an educational experience with a few bells and whistles to keep me entertained. This blog is my review from all three perspectives.
The Public History Student:
Ahhh museums. There is nothing quite like stepping foot in a brand new museum. Before opening their doors public history sites are forced to make a decision on how they are going to interpret their subject and what audiences they plan to target. I like to break it up into three: History–what actually happened; Heritage–what folks wanted to happen; Memory–a little bit of both. I was interested to see how the Museum of the American Revolution would interpret the founding era. You have to understand that museums like this one are under a lot of pressure from scholars, the general public, and wealthy donors who like a hella lotta patriotism. Scholars want to see the nitty-gritty of the American Revolution–the actual narrative. Which means there is a need to see an in-depth analysis of what we call the “other.” These are the historical subjects who don’t all fall into the “great white man” narrative. Scholars want to see equal representation of free blacks and enslaved people, women, Native Americans, the yeoman class, political “others” like loyalists and neutralists, etc. However, since this is the American Revolution, there is also pressure to appeal to those who are there for a national pilgrimage. Every country or culture has a founding myth. Washington and Franklin are our versions of Romulus and Remus. While the public certainly wants to see the real history, there are also a lot of people who want to see the “heritage” interpretation of history–one that glorifies the founders as Gods and not necessarily as humble mortals.
Before stepping foot into the museum I was interested to see how everything would be interpreted. History? Heritage? Memory? I am excited to report that the museum has done a fantastic job as a ‘memory’ museum that is a little heavier on the history, with the glorification of the founders placed appropriately. I think for the variety of audiences who will walk through those doors, the creators of the museum did a great job of accommodating everyone.
As someone who has studied public history, I was impressed. When walking through Early America museums the first thing I look for are enslaved people, Native Americans, and women. One of the best exhibits came towards the end of the museum where you were able to listen to the stories of enslaved and free black populations during the war via touch screens. My favorite being Eve–an enslaved woman who fled with her son to Cornwallis’s army. If you listened to these stories and it didn’t tug at your heartstrings you might not be a human being. It was one of the most impressive exhibits in the entire museum. However, I was disappointed in the placement of the touch screens. The whole exhibit was tucked into a back corner and you could easily miss it if you are trying to head to the next room. As important as these stories are to the history of the Revolution, I would like to see it placed somewhere that folks can’t miss.
What the museum wins major points for is the constant presence of Native Americas. The Museum of the American Revolution is covered in the Native American narrative to let visitors know what a terrible position they found themselves in throughout the entire war. One of the best areas of the museum was a wax figure exhibit where different Native American tribes discussed whether or not they should support the British or the Americans. You can tell from their conversation no matter who they decided to support, they would never come out a true winner. Both the British and the Americans were going to be a threat regardless of who won the war. The museum did a great job of pressing this catch-22.
The Loyalist / Early America Scholar:
Alright, I know this is the perspective that most people who visit my blog have been waiting for–especially my friends in Canada. How did the museum handle the role of loyalism and neutralism during the American Revolution?
Um. Well. All I have to say is thank God for Maya Jasanoff. If Liberty’s Exiles hadn’t made such a splash during the crucial years of planning the Museum of the American Revolution, I’m not sure there would have been much to write home about in terms of loyalism. I believe this is where the museum fell into the hands of heritage. A lot of Americans **cough donors** don’t want to hear about loyalists unless it’s Hollywood loyalism where folks are getting burned in churches and loyalists are slaughtering women and children in the backcountry. I think the museum played it a little safe in terms of audience.
Of course, loyalists were sprinkled throughout the museum. There were even large wax figures of the British Legion in the center of one of the largest exhibit rooms. But it was the British Legion. Tarleton’s men. You know, the guy who burned those poor people in a church in The Patriot? (And just in case you were wondering, no one burned anyone in a church during the Revolution). While I won’t lie and say that the British Legion isn’t interesting–oh it is–I kept thinking to myself “So these are the figures you chose to interpret loyalism. Wow. Typical.”
But I will say the one big sigh of relief I had from the exhibit was a quote on the wall from Nathanael Greene:
“The whole country is in danger of being laid waste by the Whigs and Tories who pursue each other with as relentless fury as beasts of prey.”
It reveals that patriots were just as likely to get downright scrappy as loyalists. As a loyalist scholar, I was constantly searching for their presence in the museum. They were there. I’m just more likely to be picky on this topic. Understandably.
A General Enthusiast:
Well, I walked into this museum and wanted to kiss the floor. Early America just doesn’t get the same love in public history as the Civil War and World Wars. As soon as I heard this museum was under construction, I was rejoicing “Yes! Finally!” It was one big museum dedicated to my favorite subject. I wasn’t disappointed, especially in terms of material culture. It was refreshing to see how many different ways this topic could possibly be interpreted to make people understand and embrace the history of the American Revolution. The museum lets you touch, smell, and feel the era. Whether it’s sniffing a big piece of pine-tarred rope, petting fur from the British Legion’s horses, or joining the Continental Army in an immersive experience, I was so happy to see the people around me enjoy the time period. Little kids were running around, ohhing and ahhing at the massive wax figures and all of the neat little buttons they could push on interactive screens to make history come alive.
One of the best parts of the museum will impress every military history enthusiast I know. Right before the immersive experience in the Continental Army is a massive weapons collection surrounded by touch screens. You can see the muskets, bayonetts, and swords in real life and then use the touch screens to zoom in and rotate around high-quality scans of each item. It’s almost like you get to hold one yourself. Along with the images of the muskets are detailed information about each one, including who may have owned it, where it was made, and how it was used. It was difficult to drag my Marine husband and brother-in-law away from this exhibit. To be honest, I didn’t want to leave it either.
For those who enjoy the time period, whether it’s reading historical or fictional works about the Revolution or frequent sites like NPS and Colonial Williamsburg, this museum is like a giant candy store. There are museum workers in every room ready to answer any question. Every person I talked to was not only knowledgeable but incredibly enthusiastic. It was difficult not to be excited about artifacts and exhibits with their comments and answers.
If you love history you absolutely cannot miss this museum. It doesn’t matter if you are a kindergarten student or a seasoned public history vet, you have to visit the Museum of the American Revolution to see, feel, and smell the history for yourself. The museum is the perfect compliment to such an incredible historic area, located just a few blocks from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. It was certainly the perfect place to see before heading over to the National Park Service.
To the folks who’ve worked on this museum from its conception to today, I thank you. You had a huge weight on your shoulders and you have created one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful museums I’ve ever visited. Not only have you filled a big public history hole, you’ve taken a topic that could have very easily turned into Mickey Mouse history and made it interesting and accessible while paying appropriate homage to the mythology. I honestly have no idea how anyone could walk in and not thoroughly enjoy the experience.
It may have even been better than Pat’s and Geno’s–which is a difficult feat.