If you’re at all into history, you’ve probably heard that a new museum opened last week in Philadelphia – the Museum of the American Revolution. If you’re not into history, you’ve probably heard about this new museum. It’s kind of a big deal. Me? I’ve only been counting down the days to its opening since probably last…May.
Apparently this museum has been in the works for a long time. From all the television coverage, it sounded like some people have been trying to get a museum dedicated solely to the American Revolution for at least twenty years, maybe since the 80’s, or even earlier. I find it quite impressive that with all of the politics involved in the museum world, they were able to create this at all.
What a museum it is!
The grand opening was Wednesday, April 19th, the anniversary of the Shot Heard Round the World – at Lexington and Concord* (see footnotes for video). I couldn’t take off work so I was livestreaming the event from the website. There is a Tomb of the Unknown (RevWar) Soldier in Philadelphia, which is where the ceremonies started with a wreath laying. Then there was a procession through the city to the museum grounds itself and many speeches. Speakers of note included the Governor of Pennsylvania, the Mayor of Philadelphia, Former VP Joe Biden, Author/Historian David McCullough, journalist Cokie Roberts, an Oneida nation spokesperson, just to name a few. I thought it was fantastic that they had representatives of all of the original 13 colonies present, although I realized that outside of my own Governor, I had no idea who any of the other people were or what they looked like, which means I need to get more civically engaged …
Also, one of the original cast members of Hamilton was there with a children’s choir performing pieces from the show. Very cool. Another “celebrity” present was George Washington. Not just any GW. This was the guy who plays GW at Mount Vernon. While on a scale of 1 to GW, I’d normally rate this guy around a 6 (seriously, Ian Kahn from Turn is the best), it is only right and just that Mount Vernon’s GW take the lead and no other.
I should have skipped work to attend the opening. The earliest I could get there was Saturday, but I was there pretty much at opening. (Well, it was more like second call because I had to stop for coffee…)
The Museum of the American Revolution experience started with a 10 minute video on what led up to the war. My time at the M*AR was sort of sensory overload and I focused in on certain parts and completely missed other parts. For example, I vividly recall the production quality of the video and the special effects and animations used to enliven still portraits, but I couldn’t actually tell you how the Intolerable Acts were presented or if they were presented at all. The video had a portrait of probably Abigail Adams and I was too busy thinking about animated layer masks, which were employed to great effect, to remember why she was highlighted at that point.
Anyway, after the video, we were ushered up the stairs and began the exhibit.
The flow was laid out nicely. It was chronological and arranged in such a way it would be difficult to get lost in the middle and skip huge portions of the narrative. I recall being intrigued by the particular campaigns they had chosen to highlight but I don’t recall why it had caught my interest. The production quality of all the signs and graphics was very high. I must confess – I spent more time looking at how everything was put together than actually reading the signs. (I even looked at the ceiling to discern lighting design…) If you look *very* carefully at some of the printed vinyl covering the walls, you can see the seams and patches where the printers had to fix a misspelled word. Teehee.
During the promotional period just prior to opening, many of the pictures included incredibly realistic mannequins in various activities, like a violent snowball fight, the Battle of Cowpens, or tearing down a statue of King George III. In person, the figures looked so realistic I had to remind myself that they were fake. Even on close examination, their makers had gotten every tiny detail right, including dirt under fingernails and the way snow flakes stick to clothing.
Probably the most powerful (to me) display was an interactive experience inside an Oneida long house where six life-sized figures discussed which side to join. The Oneida people are one of the six tribes of the Iroqouis and, apparently, had a pivotal role in the Revolution as a colonial ally. The display talked about how four of the six tribes joined the British side and two aided the colonists, then went into great detail arguing for or against each side, which showed the question was very complicated – who was the invader, who would help them keep their land, etc. Except for children, on whom nuance might be lost, I think it did a good job showing that the British allies weren’t necessarily the “bad guys” like the British usually are in American consciousness. At the end was a dramatic flashing of increasingly modern pictures of the Oneida who have continued to serve America through to today.
Then there was another immersive experience which, to me, fell flat. It was the Battle of Brandywine. Guests lined up in front of the doors like we were the actual soldiers. Once the doors opened, we lined up against a short wall while the battle played out on an iMax-style screen, complete with smoke machines, flashing lights, and vibrations through the floor. Some scenic people had blended the floor to match up perfectly with the ground in the video. Having been to many a reenactment, and even firing a musket once, this was far short of an actual Experience. If they could figure out how to work in the smell of black powder, it would probably go a long way towards improving the overall feel. All it smelled like was New Museum and Fog Machine. Also, much of the experience was lost on me because I am short and was stuck in the back. An old retired Army guy was in front of me and kind of geeking out with his wife and pretty much refused to give up his front-row seat.
^My friend’s comment: “He’s taller than I expected.” My comment: “He doesn’t look like Seth Numrich from Turn.”
At the end of the main exhibit was a cool segment on photography. At the dawn of the photographic age (around 1830/1840s), someone realized that RevWar veterans were still around and began photographing them. The hall was filled with old photographs of old men and women, many of whom were over 100 already, and the last wall was filled with mirrors that said “The Future of the Revolution.” Perhaps a little cheesy, but not repulsively so.
After exiting the main exhibit was another theater dedicated to Washington’s tent. I can’t remember how long the video was (I was probably delirious at this point), but it talked about how Washington pitched his tent with his men, how he suffered the same hardships as his men, what it did to unite his men and earn their loyalty. The climax was the projection screen rolling up into the ceiling and the tent being suddenly lit from behind as images and dramatic music flash past showing the tent in all different seasons in all sorts of different landscapes. The video had provided a good frame, even though I thought the whole presentation was a bit overwrought and sentimental. Then we were ushered out of the theater so the next group queued outside could take their turn. Maybe I’m disappointed at the lack of opportunity to sit in the tent’s shadow and commune with Washington?
Nearly four and a half hours later, I could conclusively be done with the museum at this point in time. (The gift shop had its usual array of items, from interesting books to overpriced ladies’s scarves with the Crossing of the Delaware printed on it – in repeat.) I was starving, definitely way past hangry, so I found a nearby restaurant where I was going to eat a breakfast burger but changed my mind at the last minute and ordered Eggs Benedict (Arnold). Because I’m a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge dork like that.
I’m not sure I actually read any of the information, but I could probably talk your ear off about how it was put together, just from what I saw. I can guarantee I left fingerprints on just about every surface and artifact case and at every crack in the assemblage as I tried to pull things apart. Next time I go, I need to go as a history nerd rather than an exhibits nerd. (Seriously, I can’t believe I checked out the lights…)
While I liked the layout of the museum and how it was difficult to get lost in the main exhibit, the flow could be improved a bit because everyone gets clogged up at the only entrance to the exhibit, where there is another short video and not quite enough space to hold the same number of bodies as the intro video theater.
Overall: It was a fantastic museum. It looked beautiful and everything worked beautifully. There was a lot of information that I want to go back and read. The mannequins and interactives took it beyond a normal boring museum. I was mildly skeptical about the way a couple of things were presented, like was the slow build towards revolution covered too quickly, and slavery, but I should go back and actually pay attention to content before I say anything more and risk my own credibility.
So go see it now and add MoAR to your education!
For a lot more pictures, see the More Reading section below.