Tag Archives: Philadelphia

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 few Civil War updates

A few items relating to the Civil War and the ways we remember it caught my attention lately.

First up, when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, he’ll be speaking behind the same podium Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  Right now it’s at the city’s Union League for safekeeping.

By the way, the Union League is worth a visit if you’re ever in Philly.  As Dimitri Rotov noted recently, it’s got a fine collection of Civil War art and memorabilia.  I got to spend some time there a few years ago on a business trip (one of the perks of working for a Civil War museum is traveling to neat places for work), and it’s a fantastic building to wander around in if you’re a history buff.

Second item: an opera based on Cold Mountain just premiered in Santa Fe.  Seems like a suitably operatic subject, but I doubt they’ve found a way to pull off the Battle of the Crater inside an auditorium.

Third, it looks like Jefferson Davis will be staying in the Kentucky Capitol for the foreseeable future.  The state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted to keep the Davis statue while adding some “educational context.”  As I’ve said before, I think leaving historic monuments intact while providing some interpretation to put them in their context is the best course of action in these situations.

One thing that really surprised me about the Davis issue was the reaction among black Kentuckians.  In one poll, they were pretty evenly split between support for keeping the statue (42%) and support for removing it (43%).  The percentage of black Kentuckians in favor of keeping the statue was much lower than that for whites (75%), but still a lot higher than I would’ve expected.

Reflecting Kentucky’s Civil War divisions, the Davis statue shares the Capitol with a likeness of the state’s other wartime president, Abraham Lincoln.

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Attendance and artifacts

There’s an interesting article at AxisPhilly on the challenges facing the historic attractions in and around Independence Mall.  Big museums in the City of Brotherly Love are dealing with shrinking funds and visitation numbers that are below their goals, even as yet another public history institution—the planned Museum of the American Revolution—is preparing to set up shop in the same neighborhood.

Even with some buildings closed due to budget cuts, Independence National Historical Park is doing a brisk business, with 2 million visitors to the Liberty Bell last year and capacity crowds of 686,788 at Independence Hall.  (If the number for Independence Hall seems low, bear in mind that NPS restricts the number of people allowed into the building and tours fill up early.)  The National Constitution Center, by contrast, brought in fewer than 400,000, even though it’s right across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell building.  You’d assume that most museums would be delighted with annual visitation of 400,000, but the folks at the NCC were apparently counting on more.  The nearby Jewish History Museum saw 100,000 visitors and the African American Museum just 65,000.

Independence Mall, from Wikimedia Commons

What accounts for the fact that INHP is doing a more brisk business than the other museums?  Some of the answers are obvious.  As the article’s author notes, the cost of admission probably has a lot to do with it.  Getting in to see the Liberty Bell or the room where the Continental Congress met won’t cost you a dime, but you’ll have to fork over some cash to visit the National Constitution Center and other museums.

Name recognition has got to be another factor, perhaps the most significant one.  You couldn’t ask for a historic building with more superstar appeal than Independence Hall.  The Jewish History Museum and the African American Museum presumably cater to a more specialized crowd.  But the National Constitution Center isn’t as narrowly focused in its subject matter, and it seems to market itself extremely well.

Why aren’t more of the people who visit INHP making the short stroll over to the NCC?  I think the AxisPhilly author is onto something important when she notes that the NCC “doesn’t have a core collection of objects that people will pay to come and see.”

Ultimately, what I think most heritage tourists want more than anything else is authenticity.  They want to stand in the original spot, see the real thing, have a face-to-face encounter with the past.  Take a tour of some historic house, and you’re bound to hear somebody in the group ask how much of the structure and furnishings are original.  Likewise, when I was a museum intern, the first question people asked when they stood at the counter trying to decide whether or not to hand over their money was, “What is there to see?”  They weren’t referring to the exhibits, but the collection; they’d come to a Lincoln museum to see Lincoln artifacts.  It’s like the apocryphal story about Willie Sutton.  When a reporter asked him why he robbed banks, he supposedly answered, “because that’s where the money is.”  People who are interested in history go to history museums because that’s where the historic stuff is.

This is an age of high-dollar mega-museums with ever more elaborate exhibits, but public historians always need to keep in mind that the objects themselves are what separate museums from other media of education and entertainment.  We definitely don’t need to return to the days when an exhibit consisted of nothing but text panels and cases filled with labeled items, but we also don’t need to lose sight of the fact that while exhibits will eventually become dated, the objects aren’t going to lose their appeal.

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The sequester and slavery in the City of Brotherly Love

We’re in the home stretch of posts about my trip to the Northeast, with two more cities to go.  It’s taken me as long to write all this stuff up as it did to see it.

I must’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere in New York, because by the time we got to Philadelphia the symptoms were on me in full force.  We hit the trail anyway.  I’m a first-rate wuss, but it takes more than a runny nose and a sore throat to keep me from historical sightseeing.

Something like the sequester, for example.

To explain how the folks in Washington put a real damper on this leg of the trip, I need to back up and give you a brief history of my previous visits to the City of Brotherly Love.  I was still in high school the first time I went there, accompanying my mom on a research trip.  We were only in town for one day, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.  I got to pick one destination to visit, and it came down to either Independence Hall or the Academy of Natural Sciences.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer for a Rev War buff, but at that time my history buffdom was still in its embryonic stage.  Like our tiny mammalian ancestors, it scurried around in the underbrush, unable to compete for resources with the ginormous reptiles who took up all the good habitat space.  In this case, the ginormous reptile was a hadrosaur, the first major dinosaur find ever made in the U.S. and one of the star attractions of the Academy of Natural Science’s collections.  So I picked the ANS and vowed that if I ever made it back to Philly I’d see Independence National Historical Park.

Many years later, I had to fly up to Philadelphia on a trip for the Lincoln museum.  With a couple of hours to myself, I managed to hit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the buildings where Congress and the Supreme Court sat.  I’d really wanted to see the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the New Hall Military Museum, and the gallery of Charles Wilson Peale’s portraits, but there just wasn’t enough time.  Once again I left Philadelphia with unfinished business, promising myself that someday I’d be back to fill in the blanks.

So here I was again in 2013, ready to take another crack at seeing everything INHP had to offer.  You can imagine my reaction when when we found the Declaration House, the military museum, and the Peale gallery closed.  If you’re familiar with that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the Griswolds finally make it to Walley World, and they run giddily up to the entrance only to encounter a statue of Marty Moose with a recorded message announcing that the park is shut down for renovation, well…

Image via news.moviefone.com

…it was sort of like that.

Missing the Peale gallery was just plain bad luck; it’s only open on certain days of the week, and we happened to be there on one of the other ones.  But I couldn’t figure out why the Declaration House and the military museum were off limits.  The park’s website gave no information.  I wondered if the sequester might have had something to do with it, and apparently that was the case.

On the off chance you ever read this, members of Congress and President Obama—thanks for nothing.

Still, an incomplete visit to INHP is better than a full visit to most places.  It’s an awesome park.  We did manage to see the reconstructed Declaration House from the outside.  The original was demolished in 1883.

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And Independence Hall makes any trip to INHP well worth it, even if some of the other buildings are closed.

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People have been paying their respects here for a long time.

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The line to see the Liberty Bell was much longer than on my last visit, wrapping all the way around the outside of the building.  I wondered if this was due to the fact that so many of the other buildings were closed.  There’s a great exhibit in the building that houses the bell, covering everything from its manufacture to its evolution as a symbol of freedom and protest down to the present day.  It’s a fascinating look at the development of historical memory.

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I didn’t get to visit Carpenters Hall on my last trip, so I was glad to see it this time.  The interior is much smaller than I’d expected.

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We also walked through Christ Church Burial Ground.  Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are at rest here, including Benjamin Franklin.

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One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet.  It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800.  A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.

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It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.

Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there.  As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.

There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here.  Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.

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Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter.  By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free.  The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges.  Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.

Washington never came under legal scrutiny for these shenanigans, but his slaves still proved harder to hold onto in the capital city than he anticipated.  As he prepared to leave Philadelphia and return to Virginia, a young woman named Oney Judge (one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves) fled the household.  Knowing that escape would be extremely difficult back in the Old Dominion, she used her connections among Philadelphia’s black community to make a bid for freedom and made it to New Hampshire, where she married a sailor and had three children.  Washington’s efforts to recover her ended in failure, and she died a free woman—in practice if not by law—in 1848.

It’s one heck of a story, and I’m glad the exhibit is telling it.  At the same time, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were juggling two different topics, and not entirely successfully.  The origins of the presidency and the role of slavery in the Washington household are both immensely important and very complicated subjects, requiring as much space and ingenuity as possible.  The President’s House exhibit conveys the slaves’ story much more effectively than the story of the executive branch’s early development.  This is a problem, because there aren’t many historical topics more consequential than the presidencies of Washington and Adams.  Every decision, every measure, every bit of protocol established precedents that would shape American government for more than two centuries, and in some cases determined whether the U.S. would maintain its precarious existence or be caught up in the torrent of European war.

I would’ve preferred the exhibit take its time and tell either one of these stories fully, either the bottom-up story of Washington’s slaves or the top-down story of the first two men to take the oath of office.  To me, the limited space devoted to the top-down story only called attention to the fact that the coverage was so basic and limited, like an afterthought tacked on because there happened to be room for a few more exhibit panels.  It was as if the interpreters were trying to cram in enough to please everybody, with the result that nothing got covered as thoroughly as it should have.

I realize that I’ve devoted more verbiage to my critique of the President’s House exhibit than any other aspect of INHP.  I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my overall assessment of the park is negative.  Far from it; the only reason I haven’t discussed the park as a whole in the same detail is because the President’s House exhibit was new to me, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we interpret historic sites.  I consider the park as whole to be one of the crown jewels of the entire national park system.  I’ve had two guided tours of Independence Hall and the buildings alongside it over the years, and both were among the best historic building tours I’ve ever taken.  The rangers here are extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging, the buildings are beautifully restored and maintained, and in terms of historical significance it might just outrank every other historic site in the country.  If you’re making a list of historic places to see in the U.S., this one should be at the very top.

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What’s going to be in the Museum of the American Revolution?

The Huffington Post has a sneak peek.

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What’s the epicenter of the Revolution?

At least one writer in Boston is a little miffed because Philadelphia will be home to the new Museum of the American Revolution.  Personally, I think Philly is the better option, just because it’s more centrally located and because it was the capital.

Besides, Boston already has so many great early American sites that maybe it’s time to share the love a little.  New England is the only American region I haven’t visited yet, but when I finally go there, it’ll be a multi-week orgy of historical sightseeing the like of which mankind has yet to witness.

This might surprise you, but I think a good third-runner-up home for the museum would be Charleston.  Think about it: Almost one-fifth of all American combat deaths in the war were in South Carolina during the war’s last years, and there were probably more armed clashes there than in any other state with the possible exception of New Jersey.  (My source for these claims is John Gordon’s book on Rev War battles in the Palmetto State.)  Of course, two things you don’t want near your artifacts are humidity and hurricanes, but I’m in favor of anything that will shave a few hours off my drive when this thing opens.

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