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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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A Rev War movie on the Oneida Indians is headed your way

…based on the book Forgotten Allies by Joseph Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin.  The cool part is that the Oneida Nation is doing it themselves.  They decided that a movie would be a good way to get this part of their story out there, so they’re putting up the $10 million for the film themselves.  Here are the details.

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