New in Old City: Museum of the American Revolution
When the Museum of the American Revolution debuted in the heart of the city’s historic district this spring, it took its place amid such renowned Revolutionary era icons as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. In a city replete with museums and historic sites, Philadelphia’s newest museum in section occupies a singular niche.
“There are many sites and institutions that preserve and interpret parts of the story of the American Revolution,” says R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming. “What Philadelphia – and really, the nation – has been missing is a place that pulls all of the disparate threads of this dramatic and engaging story together under one roof.”
Situated at 101 S. Third St., the museum documents the story of the American Revolution, from early acts of protest and resistance against British policies in the 1760s to the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that formalized American independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. It also highlights the Revolution’s aftermath and continuing relevance.
Stephenson suggests that visitors start by viewing the introductory film in the lobby-level theater and then stroll through the galleries on the second floor from beginning to end “before you settle in and dig into the details.”
“There is so much to see and do that you will want to return many times,” he says.
A comprehensive collection
The museum’s collection contains several thousand objects. Artifacts from the Revolutionary period range from printed material such as posters and manuscripts to military uniforms and weaponry, battle plans, artwork, and musical instruments. The crown jewel of the collection is George Washington’s tent, which served as the general’s mobile field headquarters throughout much of the war.
The museum also offers interactive displays, multi-media presentations, hands-on experiences and children’s activities like playing dress-up in Colonial clothing present and writing secret messages in a code used during the war.
Visitors travel the path to independent nationhood chronologically. Many of the exhibits tell the stories of men, women and children from opposing sides of the conflict and from different stations in life through their letters, diaries and objects of everyday living.
The first set of galleries, entitled “The Road to Independence,” showcases the early stirrings of discontent against British tax and trade policies and other aspects of British rule in the 1760s through the war’s start with the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. The Continental Army was established later that same year, and the Declaration of Independence was published and signed in 1776.
Among the items on display is a life-size replica of the Boston Liberty Tree, where colonists first gathered to protest the Stamp Act; posters and broadsides railing against British oppression; and an interactive digital wall highlighting important moments in the decade following the Stamp Act as resistance evolved to full-scale revolution.
The next set of galleries, “The Darkest Hour,” showcases the military challenges of waging war against Britain, which was then the world’s largest empire and most professional fighting force. Exhibits show the Continental Army’s devastating battle losses during the war’s early years. Highlights include the iconic 1883 commemorative painting “Washington’s March to Valley Forge” by William Trego, which depicts the troops’ retreat from Philadelphia; and excerpts from the wartime diaries of soldiers and civilians.
The tide turns
The third set of galleries, “A Revolutionary War,” follows the final years of the War of Independence as the Continental Army became more cohesive and proficient and other nations allied with the colonial cause. “A Revolutionary War” also explores how the revolution divided families, communities and tribes over whether to remain loyal to Great Britain or support American independence. In the “Oneida Nation” gallery, life-size animated figures representing members of the Oneida Nation of Native Americans are depicted debating that issue.
After the war
The last section of galleries, “A New Nation,” explores the U.S. republic that emerged after the war’s end and the continuing challenges of fulfilling the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
Exhibits span the Revolutionary War period to modern times. Displays from the early post-war period highlight the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which formally ended the war; the creation of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights; and the election of the nation’s first president. Artifacts from that time include drinking cups decorated with early symbols of the United States, such as the iconic American eagle; and a replica of the chair in which Washington sat when he chaired the Constitutional Convention at Independence Hall.
An ongoing revolution
Ironically, while the Declaration of Independence asserted that all men are created equal and endowed with the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those ideals fell out of reach during and after the war for people of African descent, Native Americans and women. The struggles of these groups are documented by the film “The Ongoing Revolution,” shown in one of the “A New Nation” galleries. Slavery remained legal in much of America well into the 19th century. Native Americans lost much of their tribal land as the United States expanded westward. They were not granted full U.S. citizenship until 1924. The self-governing republic created by the Revolution did not initially grant voting rights to blacks, Native Americans or women.
Struggles for equality continue in modern America. “The Ongoing Revolution” highlights the disability rights movement, the gay rights movement, the nation’s continuing racial issues and the struggle for gender equality. As Stephenson points out, “One of our central goals is to cast the American Revolution as an ongoing experiment in self-government and a centuries-long, still unfinished movement to expand the promise of liberty and equality embedded in the Declaration of Independence to all people.”
The Museum of the American Revolution is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer) and closed for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tickets are $19 for adults; $12 for children 6-18; free for children 5 and under; and $17 for seniors 65 and up, active duty members of the military, AAA members and students. Tickets are good for two consecutive days’ admission.
For information, call 215-253-6731 or, toll-free, 877-740-1776; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or go to amrevmuseum.org.
CAPTION: A tableau of loyalist cavalry troopers, on display at the Museum of the American Revolution, represents colonist who fought for the British. (Photo courtesy of Museum of the American Revolution)
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