Museum of the American Revolution
By Eleanor Berman
With colorful films, dramatic displays and fresh insights into history, the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is a lively account of how a ragtag volunteer army managed to overcome British might to found our nation. Many personal stories helps bring the history alive and a rich collection of artifacts, from muskets to posters to George Washington’s Headquarters Tent add to the story.
The three-story, $120 million red brick building designed by Robert A.M. Stern Associates fits right into its historic neighborhood. It fills in what happened between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the drafting of the US Constitution, events that took place just a few blocks away in Independence Hall.
After a 15-minute introductory movie, visitors ascend a sweeping curved stairway to the galleries, where several life-size tableaus await. “A Brawl in Harvard Yard” shows George Washington breaking up a fight between troops from New England and Virginia. It points out that the Yankees and Southerners who were expected to form an army did not necessarily like each other, an issue many historians don’t mention.
While British troops were attired in spiffy red coats, American soldiers often had to improvise uniforms. Drawings show some of the hats fashioned by creative souls proclaiming their allegiance.
Many slaves had to choose between fighting for the rebels or for the British, as did Indian tribes. The multi-media Oneida gallery features life-size figures and a film depicting members of the tribe debating the risks of joining British armies versus aiding Colonial troops. The Oneidas chose the rebels, but four neighboring tribes played it safe with the British. The Oneida tribe donated $10 million to the museum.
My favorite of the many immersive presentations was the Battlefield Theater, where visitors face a simulated British barrage of gunfire, complete with realistic smoke and sound.
Some of the displays are enormous. An 18-foot replica of a “liberty tree” shows where citizens once gathered to plot resistance to the British. A 19 by 45-foot replica of a privateer ship can actually be boarded. It represents privately owned vessels that were licensed by Congress or the states to attack British ships, augmenting the over-matched Continental Navy. Some 70,000 men served on privateer ships compared to just 3500 in the Continental Navy.
A separate theater features a 10-minute presentation on the museum’s most prized possession, Washington’s battle tent. The 14 by 24 foot hand-stitched tent was Washington’s office and sleeping quarters for most of the war. It passed down to several generations of descendants, was seized by federal troops during the Civil War, and after being returned to the family, was put up for sale in the early 1900s. An Episcopal minister, Rev. W. Herbert Burk, raised funds to acquire the tent as the heart of a major Revolutionary War collection that has passed on to the museum. The tent has been painstakingly restored but it so fragile that it can only be seen at a distance, unveiled in climate-controlled splendor at the end of the film.
It is easy to go through the museum just enjoying the films and showy displays, but those who want more history have many opportunities to view rare artifacts ranging from Washington’s silver camp cups and books to muskets and swords. And many digital installations with touchscreens and lift up displays offer deeper information, amplifying the collections of arms, showing posters of protest, portraying the hardships of winter at Valley Forge and sharing personal declarations from citizens supporting the revolution. Either way, a new appreciation of the difficulty and importance of the Revolutionary War is guaranteed.
The non-profit museum, which was financed mostly by private donations, is located at 101 South Third, at the corner of Third and Chestnut streets. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5p.m; to 6 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day. Admission is $19 for adults, $12 from ages 6 and up. The main floor offers a large gift shop and the soon-to-open Cross Keys Café. For further information, visit Museum of the American Revolution.
Eleanor Berman, a New York freelance writer and award-winning author of a dozen travel guides, has covered 82 countries and all 7 continents. She has written for many national publications, including Travel & Leisure, Ladies’ Home Journal, Diversion, Robb Report, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Denver Post, Miami Herald, and the New York Daily News. Among her guide book awards are a Lowell Thomas award for Traveling Solo, Thomas Cook Book of the Year for Eyewitness Guide to New York, and Independent Publishers IPPY award, best guide of the year, for New York Neighborhoods.