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Inside the new Museum of the American Revolution

Written by Shannon Eblen/The York Daily Record | Apr 3, 2017 6:58 AM
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The long-awaited Museum of the American Revolution opens April 19 in Philadelphia. (Photo: Shannon Eblen/Staff photographer)

(Philadelphia) -- A century in the making, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia had the good fortune to open in 2017, in the wake of the hit musical "Hamilton," which sparked a renewed interest in the nation's history.

While everyone may know the basics of the American Revolution, the new, 118,000-square-foot Philadelphia museum takes visitors on a deeper dive.

The history the museum tells is less glossy and more complex, said Vice President of Exhibits Scott Stephenson. Standing at the top of the sweeping, curved staircase that delivers visitors from the spacious lobby to the core exhibits, he delivered a rap from "The Hamilton Mixtape."

"You ever seen a painting by John Trumbull/ Founding fathers in a line looking all humble/ Patiently waiting to sign a declaration, to start a nation/ No sign of disagreement, not one grumble/ The reality is messier and richer, kids/  The reality is not a pretty picture, kids."

The song could be an advertisement for the museum, he said.

Construction nears completion as Philadelphia's upcoming Museum of the American Revolution looks to open its doors April 19, 2017. Produced by Joe Lamberti/Staff Photographer
 

Not all Declarations of Independence, muskets and powder horns, it's a close examination of the history preceding and succeeding the war as well as the many others who stood in the shadow of those founding fathers.

The arc of galleries runs chronologically from 1760 to 1790 and is arranged around four questions: How did people become revolutionaries? How did the revolution survive its darkest hours? How revolutionary was the war and what kind of nation did it create?

Located a short stroll from the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Carpenters' Hall, Declaration House and the Constitution Center, it seems incredible it took this long to create a museum dedicated to an overall picture of the American Revolution.

"It's been a hole," Stephenson said. The Old City landmarks were the trees, but "No one is in charge of the forest."

The museum originally was planned for Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, by Reverend W. Herbert Burk, who began assembling a collection of artifacts in the early 1900s.

In 2009, the site moved to Third and Chestnut in Philadelphia and excavation began, turning up more treasures that sit alongside Burk's collection and other items on long-term loan.

Among these are the pieced-together shards of an English punch bowl, one of several items buried in the privy of a tavern that sat on the site, literally flushed down the toilet, Stephenson said, when war broke out.

Other lucky saves include a painting, "The Arms of Queen Anne,'' which previously had been tucked away in the attic of Independence Hall, forgotten and spared as colonists destroyed royal coats of arms and threw off the yoke of the British.

These are displayed at the beginning of the tour alongside maps that show the vast reach of the British empire of the 18th century, the new Rome, indicative of the magnitude of the colonists' decision to defy the crown.

The historical artifacts are balanced with state-of-the-art touchscreen technology -- interactive timelines and the museum's so-called "digital petting zoo," high-resolution, 360-degree photography that affords visitors a closer look at the glass-encased swords and muskets.

Stephenson's idea for the museum was to make it "a movie you can walk through." Thus, additions like life-cast sculptures (many immortalizing the faces of museum employees) and animations of period artwork.

A 10-year-old would probably pass right by the Doolittle engravings of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Stephenson said, but add movement and sound effects, fill the room with artifacts actually portrayed in the work, and suddenly the battle comes to life.

"The Civil War has Matthew Brady," he said, referring to one of the first American photographers, but the American Revolution didn't have the benefit of film and photography, only engravings and paintings.

A re-enactment of the colonists tearing down the equestrian statue of King George that resided in Bowling Green long before the Charging Bull delivers museumgoers to the heart of the revolution. The statue was melted down to create musket balls, called "Melted Majesty," some of which were used at the Battle of Monmouth and are now on display at the museum. Chemical analyses show traces of gilt.

A life-cast sculpture of a brawl at Harvard between northern and southern soldiers - George Washington in the middle breaking up the fight - illustrates that in the early days of the revolution, there was no national identity. Colony was country.

The Battlefield Theater offers a 4-D experience of the Battle of Brandywine, ground shaking, smoke billowing and bullets flying. Replica Independence Hall chairs give visitors a front-row seat to the hot July day when 13 colonies declared their independence.

Sure, you can see the real ones at Independence Hall just down the street, but "They don't let you sit in the chairs," Stephenson said.

Proving that history is "messier," exhibits tell the stories of slaves who fought for the British to gain their own independence. A film talks about how Washington's slaves challenged his thinking on the subject of slavery.

One exhibit offers a reminder that Jefferson's promise of equality didn't apply to everyone: Women, African-Americans, even white men who were not land owners are excluded.

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