Tag Archives: Lexington and Concord

A look at the Museum of the American Revolution

Most of you probably know that the Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia a couple of months ago.  I set aside some time to visit while staying in Pennsylvania.  I’m happy to report that it exceeded my expectations.

The MAR’s use of technology, immersive environments, and full-scale tableaux with figures has invited comparisons to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  Personally, though, I found the MAR much richer in content, more judicious in its use of bells and whistles, and far more impressive in its assemblage of original material than the ALPLM.

At the Springfield museum I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that the designers were deploying all the latest gizmos (holograms, smoke, and deafening sound effects) not because each gimmick was the best tool for a particular interpretive need, but because the gimmicks were cool and they had money to burn.  To borrow a phrase from my favorite film, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.  I never got that impression at the MAR.  The content, and not the medium, is in the driver’s seat.

There’s quite a bit of stagecraft and showmanship, but it serves a pedagogical purpose.  An interactive panel, for example, allows you to zero in on passages in Revolutionary propaganda pieces to dive into the meanings of particular phrases, or to place each document on a timeline of broader events.

Figures in life-size tableaux are so prominent at the ALPLM that you almost get the impression they’re the main course of the meal, with the artifacts as a garnish.  Not so at the MAR.  The tableaux in Philly are interpretive tools, the icing on the cake.  But they’re also quite evocative.  Here the artist-turned-officer Charles Wilson Peale encounters a bedraggled fellow soldier during the Continental Army’s disastrous retreat in late 1776.  The man turns out to be his own brother, barely recognizable after weeks of hard campaigning.

But the heart and soul of the MAR exhibits are the artifacts, and they’re spectacular.  Never in my life have I seen such a remarkable assemblage of objects from the Revolutionary era.  Weapons used on the war’s very first day at Lexington and Concord…

…a timber from the bridge where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired…

…Washington’s uniform sash…

…a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems…

…the sword Hugh Mercer carried when he fell at Princeton…

…John Paul Jones’s spyglass…

…and the museum’s crown jewel, Washington’s headquarters tent, with a place of honor inside its own auditorium (where photography, alas, is not permitted.)

Ordinary civilians and soldiers get representation, too.  A simple canteen carried during the campaign for New York…

…an original fringed hunting shirt, one of only a handful still in existence…

…the remnants of Hessians’ caps…

…and an especially poignant object, a pair of slave shackles small enough to fit a child.

Each exhibit case bristles with so many fascinating artifacts that part of the fun of touring each gallery is the anticipation of what you’ll find in the next one.

Of course, a successful exhibit requires not only objects for the cases, but the proper interpretation and contextualization of those objects.  Here, too, the MAR impressed me.  The introductory film provides a solid introduction to what was at stake in the Revolution, and the exhibits place the struggle for independence in the context of wider transformations across the British Empire.  The museum’s narrative gives us the Revolution’s heroism and its high ideals along with its contradictions, unfulfilled promises, and the fearsome cost in suffering it imposed on the people who lived through it.  If any layperson came to me asking where they could get a sound and incisive overview of the subject, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them there.

There are only two aspects of the museum I’d criticize.  I’m pleased that the MAR sets aside significant space for the Revolution’s frontier and Native American dimensions.  But the Native perspective is almost entirely that of one particular tribe: the Oneidas, who (perhaps not coincidentally) made a substantial donation to the museum.  The focus on a single tribe has its advantages; visitors get a compelling look at the Oneidas’ difficult decision to support the American cause.  The drawback is that there isn’t much room left to tell the stories of other Indian communities, many of whom made very different choices.  Additional space devoted to the tribes that took up arms against the young United States or tried to play different powers against one another would convey a more well-rounded, representative portrait of the Revolution’s impact on Native Americans.

My other criticism owes a lot to the fact that I’m a Southern Campaign guy.  Many popular presentations of the Revolution give short shrift to the war in the South.  You get thorough coverage of the battles in the North, but once the war moves to the Carolinas and Georgia it’s only a few general remarks about partisan warfare and perhaps a reference to Morgan’s tactical master stroke at Cowpens.  Cornwallis ends up in Virginia to surrender to Washington and the French, but the details of how he ended up there are often sketchy; it’s almost as if Yorktown was a freak accident.  The MAR’s coverage of the war unfortunately follows this formula.  The exhibits on the war’s beginnings in New England, the fall of New York, Washington’s counter-thrust across the Delaware, Saratoga, the capture of Pennsylvania, and Valley Forge are superb, but when the narrative reaches the war in the South, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.  The gallery devoted to the Carolinas and Georgia is given over mainly to Cowpens, with some remarks on initial British successes, the relationship between the Southern Campaign and slavery, and a bit on the viciousness of partisan fighting.

Still, if the exhibit on the war in the South is more or less a Cowpens gallery, it’s an exceptionally impressive Cowpens gallery.  The life-size figures of Tarleton’s dragoons convey something of their fearsome reputation…

…and I got a kick out seeing artifacts associated with the units mauled at Cowpens: the 71st Highlanders, British Legion, and 17th Light Dragoons.

I should add that the skimpier treatment of the South applies only to the galleries devoted to the war itself.  In its treatment of the Revolution’s other dimensions, the MAR’s geographic balance is admirable.  You never get the sense that the non-importation movement was solely a Boston affair.

And in any case, I don’t want to dwell on those few things about the museum that irked me, because the experience as a whole was so remarkable.  I enjoy museums, but it’s not often I get so excited while I stroll through one.  This is the American Revolution for everybody—enough breadth to encompass the story, enough showmanship to engage visitors of all ages, and more than enough striking material on display to satisfy even the most hardcore history buff.  From now on, anyone planning that historical sightseeing trip to Philadelphia is going to have to budget for an extra day.  The MAR is a first-rate destination in its own right, and one nobody should miss.

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Bring on the Rev War books

I’ve been so busy reading history for school that I haven’t had time to…well, read other history books.  Some interesting Rev War titles have hit the shelves this year, and I’m hoping to sink my teeth into a few of them over the holidays.

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This year’s Battle Road reenactment is a casualty of federal budget cuts

If you were planning to watch some reenactors do their thing at Minute Man National Historical Park this year, you’re out of luck.

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“…if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

I think I was even more psyched about visiting Lexington and Concord than doing the Freedom Trail.  It’s a must-see for anybody interested in the Revolution, and Paul Revere’s Ride was one of the first books I read after I switched my major to history in college.

Minute Man National Historical Park holds much of the important real estate involved in the Revolution’s first fight, although Lexington Common is town property and therefore outside the park’s bounds.

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The common is probably the most well-groomed battlefield I’ve ever visited, and for one of the most important pieces of turf in the world, it’s also relatively unadorned.  Just a few monuments, including the “Revolutionary Monument” set up in 1799…

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a rock inscribed with Capt. John Parker’s instructions to his men…

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…and the iconic statue of a militiaman.

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The Lexington Historical Society operates three historic buildings in the town as museums.  We took a tour of Buckman Tavern, which is right beside the green.  In the wee hours of the morning on April 19, 1775 the town’s minutemen awaited the arrival of the British here.  It’s one of the best historic building tours I’ve ever enjoyed; the tavern is beautifully restored, and our guide was outstanding.

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Heading west from Lexington brings you to Minute Man Visitor Center near the eastern entrance to MMNHP.  Here you’ll find a small exhibit on some of the battle’s participants and an innovative multimedia presentation that gives you a great overview of the Revolutionary War’s beginnings.  It’s similar to some of the shows at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, and very engaging.

This is one of those parks you can see in a few hours or a lifetime, depending on how much time and interest you have.  I should note that MMNHP also boasts a couple of really important literary sites, including a home owned by both Louisa May Alcott’s family and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as another home inhabited by Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The NPS was renovating one of these buildings and the other closed before we arrived, but we hadn’t really planned on touring them, so no big deal.  (I wanted to maximize my time at the Rev War sites anyway, and I’ve always thought the Transcendentalists were a bunch of insufferably self-righteous navel-gazers.)

There’s a five-mile trail tracing part of the route of the running battle between the militia and the British regulars with stops at a few key points, like the Revere capture site.

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The park has another visitor center near Concord’s North Bridge.  Among the artifacts displayed here is “the Hancock,” one of the cannons stashed away in Concord that the British hoped to recover on their ill-fated mission.

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A short walk downhill from the visitor center is the most famous bridge in American military history this side of Antietam—or a replicated version, anyway.  (The town of Concord dismantled the original North Bridge in 1793.)

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There are three monuments worth noting near the bridge.  Emerson’s famous Concord Hymn was written for the dedication of the first one, an obelisk erected in 1836.

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Daniel Chester French’s impressive statue of a militiaman was cast from seven Civil War cannons.

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Finally—and the most impressive one to me—is the grave marker for two of the British soldiers killed at the bridge fight.

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April 19

Resilient folks, those Bay Staters.

By Aldaron — Aldaron, a.k.a. Aldaron (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Random stuff

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Virtually on the ground

I’ve posted before about some of the online gimmicks that allow you to virtually visit historic sites, whether via aerial photos or webcams.  Lately I’ve been trying the same thing with Google Street View, which allows you to travel along roads and look around for a 360° view.  The images come from car-mounted cameras, so it only works for locations located along public thoroughfares.

Take Gettysburg, for example.  Emmitsburg Road cuts across the middle of the battlefield; the Confederates had to cross it during Pickett’s Charge.  You can plop yourself down at street level across from the High Water Mark of the Confederacy and pan around to view the entire landscape, behind you and on both sides.  It’s too bad that internal Park Service roads aren’t included, or you could tour the whole battlefield.

Urban sites work best, because public streets are more numerous around them.  Here’s Lincoln’s law office and the Old State Capitol in Springfield, here’s Independence Hall in Philadelphia, here’s Fort Moultrie in Charleston, and here’s the site of the first shot of the Revolution in Lexington, MA.  Bunker Hill appears to have an ice cream truck parked in front of it, which is just about the last thing you’d expect to see on a battlefield.  The neat part is that you can use the arrows on the streets to “walk” around these sites and examine them from different angles.

If you’ve got a particular site you want to visit, just head over to Google Map, type in the address or name, and then zoom in as far as you can.  Near the top left side of the map is a small, yellow icon shaped like a human figure.  Grab that icon with your mouse and set it down on the nearest street.  It’s not exactly being there, but for those of us who like history, it’s a fine way to make our workdays even less productive than they already are.

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