Visiting our two new American Revolution museums

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Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution (left) and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (right)

My “travel blog” continues today. Two of the four brand new museums I recently visited were Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

My group of history nerd friends headed to Philadelphia after our day in DC (in which I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture), deciding to go via Annapolis and the Maryland Eastern Shore/Delaware route rather than up I-95 North through Baltimore. What a great decision! Anyone that has ever travelled on I-95 north of Richmond (all the way to Boston) will tell you to avoid it at all costs if you can. Not only did our route cut down on the toll charges, but it was a relaxing drive with very little traffic as we came through in the late evening. Having driven the stressful I-95 route many times (which sucks no matter what time of day or night it is), I can tell you, this was an extremely nice alternative. If you are traveling from DC to Philadelphia, I highly recommend it (sorry, Baltimore).

Our hotel was only a short walk from the museum (I also recommend the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District. I have stayed there twice now and it is easy walking distance from just about everything you want to see in Philly). The new museum is in a great location (the site of the old visitor’s center), across the street from the First Bank of the US, and next door to the historic (and delicious) City Tavern (don’t miss the dining experience there). Before construction began on the brand new building, they found about 82,000 relics from colonial and 19th century Philadelphia while excavating the site.

The new facility is visually appealing on the outside and strikingly beautiful inside, featuring a grand spiraling staircase. The ground floor contains the obligatory introductory movie (honestly I don’t recall much about it), and then you ascend the stairs to the main galleries.

Here you are immediately immersed into the history, as a film projected on a wall around and above you places you in the middle of the pulling down of the King George III statue in New York (an event that took place on July 9, 1776). This first room asks you to question why the colonists came to despise a king that they once celebrated with a monument. I don’t think the museum’s planners intended a connection to our current wave of dismantling monuments, but it is a good reminder that there are precedents for Americans tearing down monuments when they no longer wanted to lionize men that they once did. It seems our revolutionary generation was not against “erasing history.”

The tight hallways then usher you through the exhibits, starting with George III’s coronation and ending with the New Republic. Unlike some museums, there is no guesswork involved in where to go and what to view next, as tight corridors snake through chronologically arranged displays. These are a nice mix of relics, interpretation, and immersive experiences.

The core of the objects on display were first obtained in the early 20th century by Reverend W. Herbert Burk, a collector/amateur historian from Valley Forge who obtained the pieces and later bequeathed the collection to the Valley Forge Historical Society. Some of the objects were then loaned out to other institutions, but most of them sat in warehouses waiting for the organization to build a large facility to display it all. That didn’t come until the early 2000s when the collection was handed over to the planners of the Museum of the American Revolution, who then spent nearly two decades cataloging the relics, planning the museum, raising funds, constructing the 118,000 square foot facility, and finally openings the doors in April 2017.

On display are such items as a pocket bible that was carried by a soldier during the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Lincoln’s sword, some of Patrick Henry’s law books, remnants of the aforementioned destroyed statue of George III, silver cups used by Washington and his staff, a powder horn used in the Battle of Fort Washington, a wooden plank from Concord Bridge (seriously cool), and a sash that Washington used early in the war to distinguish his rank and which he is seen wearing in the famous portrait painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776.

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Washington wearing the sash in the Peale painting (left), and the sash on display

The relic collection is amazing, but the museum is also heavy on exhibits that use technology and carefully constructed sets and life-sized figurines to immerse visitors into the times. For instance, you’ll stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree, smell the tea that was cast into the Harbor, sit in replica chairs in a mockup of Independence Hall, get shot at during a skirmish with British troops, and (my favorite of all) stand among elders of the Oneida Nation as they make the decision to support the Patriots in the Revolution. (It is even way cooler that it might sound, and FYI, the Oneida Nation was one of the museum’s biggest financial contributors).

As the presence of the Oneida Nation suggests, the emphasis is on inclusiveness, and everyone in my group agreed that the Museum of the American Revolution does this exceptionally well. Instead of having a women’s section, or an African American section, or Native American section, etc., those people, their experiences, the roles they played in shaping the Revolution, and (most important) how it effected them, is fully, appropriately, and effectively interwoven into the narrative at nearly every step along the way.

This is the way that I think history should be done, not just in museums, but in textbooks and classrooms. I am not a fan of segregating people that were not caucasian men off in their own museum sections, book sidebars, or separate lectures, because that in itself suggests that they are not included in the mainstream narrative. For instance, I’ll never deliver a lecture titled “African Americans in the Revolution,” or “Women in the Civil War,” because I feel when done correctly, those groups show up in meaningful ways in every lecture. In my mind, the Museum of the American Revolution is now a model for how to do this effectively. Other museums, and teachers, take note.

The crown jewel in the museum’s collection is the exterior section of one of George Washington’s headquarter tents (his office and sleeping tent). Once you have finished your trip through the exhibits, you’ll be sent into a movie-theater-like room where a high tech audio/visual program introduces the history of the tent and its usage during the war. The climax is the reveal of the tent, which you’ll never come anywhere near arm’s reach to, as swelling music and dramatic dialogue dictate exactly how you should feel as you view the relic. I found this presentation to be a bit overly dramatic/cheesy. (“The Republic, like the tent, endures”), but I’ll admit it was effective, leaving you feeling like you have seen and experienced something quite amazing.

Visitors should know, however, that Washington had two campaign tents, and the interior of the other one (the dining and meeting tent for Washington and his officers) is at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor’s Center at the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Yet not only do they have the interior of the dining/meeting tent, they possess the interior of the sleeping/office tent (the exterior of which is what they are displaying in Philadelphia) as well as its poles. Further, without the stirring music and grandiose rhetoric, the Yorktown display is set up in a way that allows you to walk part-way inside the tent (you are separated from it by glass). Personally,  I like the tent display by the National Park Service in Yorktown much better. It is immersive and powerful without the high tech and overly dramatic fluff.

And speaking of Yorktown, the other new American Revolution museum is there at the site of what was formally known as the Yorktown Victory Center. After 50 million in upgrades, the institution has recently opened a new museum dedicated to telling the story of the whole Revolution. My group visited it two days later (after spending a day on Maryland’s Eastern Shore tracking down Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. More on that in my next posting).

Like the one in Philly, the building is immediately impressive and welcoming, with a brand new smell and shine. First up is once again the obligatory intro movie, but the Yorktown film is far more original than the one in Philadelphia (and most other historic sites). Set in the early 19th century, the film depicts a traveling carnival-type show that uses high tech (for the times) displays and a charismatic barker (“gather round, ladies and gents!”) to tell the story of the American Revolution to a group of enthralled children and adults. I really appreciated the originality of this film’s introduction to the museum’s interpretive themes. You really feel as though you are about to experience something special.

The museum does not disappoint. Honestly, the thing I immediately liked most about it is that it is open and airy, containing far more places to sit down among the exhibits than are available in the Philadelphia museum (for a weary traveler with a strained back and tired feet, this was a godsend).  It too is laid out in mostly easy to follow chronological order (although the drawback to the openness is that in contrast to the tight corridors in Philly, there are a couple of spots where it is not clear where you should go next to maintain the chronological flow. But that doesn’t last for long and is not a major problem.)

The Yorktown museum has less relics (though there are many, and some nice pieces, such as pistols owned by Lafayette), relying mostly on the interpretation and immersive exhibits.

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Two of Lafayette’s pistols on display at Yorktown

Unlike Philadelphia’s museum, Yorktown’s focuses more attention on the “big name” Founders and their influences. For instance, the Enlightenment, the philosophes, and their impact on the Founders is largely missing in Philly, and less attention is paid to the standard pantheon of Founding Fathers. These men get more of their just due in Yorktown.

Yet, while the Yorktown museum also strives for an inclusive story, it commits what I consider the sin of mostly (not exclusively) segregating women, African Americans, and Native Americans into their own separate sections.

In defense of the museum, these exhibits feature solid interpretation and derive from a genuine and non-patronizing effort (there are no “tokens” here). I just think there is a better way.

Further stemming from efforts at inclusiveness, the museum has exhibits on the typical life and the homes of colonial and revolutionary Americans of all classes.  I found this to be an odd waste of space, as Colonial Williamsburg is nearby, and anyone visiting the area will likely be spending time there. (The Philadelphia museum, for instance, spends little time on Benjamin Franklin or even the Continental Congress, presumably because there are famous areas nearby where those stories are explored in detail).

As in Philadelphia, technology is used to draw you into the Revolution, as an especially neat exhibit features a battle simulation game in which visitors can compete against the computer, or each other, and then learn how the real battle played out. Yorktown also has a Liberty Tree exhibit, yet upstages the Philly museum because visitors can type in a message that is quickly posted electronically on the tree’s lanterns. (I may or may not have posted something about being vigilant against tyranny and the need to resist chief executives that obstruct justice and decry a free press).

Far and away, however, the coolest thing I found at either museum was Yorktown’s immersive film on the Battle of the Capes and the Yorktown Siege. It is only about 12 minutes long, but is rather amazing. As you sit surrounded on three sides by film screens, you’ll feel the sea air in your face, smell the coffee being served to troops in the entrenchments (seriously, the coffee), feel the rattle of shell explosions and thunder, and be surrounded by fog and smoke during the Alexander Hamilton-led attack on redoubt # 10. The combat scenes are beautifully filmed and thrilling, yet not gruesomely realistic. Yes, other museums have similar presentations, but this one if by far the best I have ever seen (I watched it three times!) It alone is worth the price of admission.

The Yorktown museum includes a living-history area, where siege lines, military encampments, and even a colonial farm are replicated. My group did not have time to visit this area, and it didn’t seem to be much different than what has long been available at the previous Yorktown Victory Center. Still, it should be noted this alone makes a visit to the Yorktown museum a much different experience than the one in Philadelphia.

In both museums, all the high tech bells and whistles are largely designed to deliver the message that the American Revolution and our experiment in republican government are far from over. The last exhibits in both focus on the fact that our nation’s history is largely the story of increasing freedoms for peoples and groups that our Founders left out when creating a government to protect individual liberties.

Despite powerful and significant opposition, slow and halting progress, and significant times of retrogression, we’ve continually forced the United States to live up to and expand the promises of the Revolutionary generation in ways that the Founders never intended or even envisoned. Instead of canonizing them, their work, and their design for our government as infallible, we’ve honed, expanded, and bettered what they started. It is up to us to continue to do so.  Thus, both museums stress, the Revolution continues, and whatever it becomes is up to our current values and actions, as well as our vigilance and resistance to those that would turn the Revolution backwards.

It may have been because I was rushed at the end of the day through the final exhibits at Yorktown, but I felt the Philadelphia museum delivered this message more powerfully. As you exit the exhibits, you very literally look into the faces of the current generation of revolutionaries. (Hint: it is us).

Bottom line: Both of these new museums are exceptional and dedicated to telling an inclusive story of the American Revolution.  The intro movie is more unique at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the facility is more comfortable, and the Yorktown battle presentation is by far the coolest and most successfully immersive exhibit at either site. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution more effectively tells its inclusive narrative, has more awe-inspiring relics, and more inspiringly delivers its message.

Thus the Philadelphia museum is the superior one, but not by much (and perhaps the outdoor living history displays at Yorktown make the experience there superior in the end).

I highly encourage you to make it a goal to see visit both institutions.

Preserving sacred land in Virginia, but not in North Dakota; Yorktown’s New American Revolution museum; Miranda on Drunk History; A Civil War comedy?

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More great National Park Service news: The other day we learned about the impending creation of a Civil Rights National Monument in Birmingham, as well as the potential saving of almost all of the Malvern Hill Battlefield in Virginia. Now, we learn that a bill that has long been in the works is close to approval that would triple the size of the Petersburg National Battlefield, making it the largest Civil War park in the nation. Virginia’s senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have been working on this for a long while, picking up where others before them left off.

And yet while we are protecting all this land that has been deemed sacred to U.S. history, the protests continue in North Dakota to preserve land sacred to Native Americans. Now we get news that some 2,000 US military veterans are starting to arrive at the Standing Rock site, dedicated to creating a human wall around the protestors to protect them in the event of a forced removal (just think of the historical ironies of that for a second). North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered the protestors to leave, though noting that force would not be used to make them comply. Hiding behind feigned concern for the protestors (which reminds one of actions taken by certain officials during the Civil Rights movement), he insists that the order is meant to protect them from some rapidly approaching severe winter weather. I love the response of the Standing Rock Sioux to the governor. In a statement on Wednesday, they said that because “the Governor of North Dakota and Sheriff of Morton County are relative newcomers” to the land, “it is understandable they would be concerned about severe winter weather.” Further, the Great Sioux Nation has survived “in this region for millennia without the concerns of state or county governments.” Nice. Let’s hope this situation does not get any uglier, but with the veterans arriving, I think it is quickly reaching a boiling point. Our nation does have a history of dealing harshly with protestors like this (even when they include veterans), and I fear for what kinds of things can happen in Trump’s America. (Too bad that North Dakota does not seem to be represented by men like Warner and Kaine).

And while we are on Standing Rock, I highly encourage you to take he time to read the blog post of Wisconsin basketball player Bronson Koenig about his experiences at the protest site, his recent delvings into Native American history, and the impact it all has had on his ongoing personal self discovery.  It is a great read that will take you much deeper into what is going on out there than we see in the headlines.

Well we know about the new American Revolution museum soon opening in Philadelphia, but there is also a new one already open in Yorktown, Virginia. According to the Virginia Gazette, the new facility is heavy on technology designed to draw visitors into an immersive experience (and includes battle simulation games). “You never want to do technology just to do technology,” one of the institution’s media managers said. “So we didn’t just do something because it looked cool or because it was a big wow, but rather, does it present the content in the way that is going to mean the most to the visitor who’s interacting with it?” As a result, the new $50 million museum has 22,000-square-foot gallery that, in addition to 500 artifacts, contains four film experiences, six computer interactives, projections, audio wands and more. I’ll be in the area in just a few weeks, so I can’t wait to drop by and see the new place. I’ll let you know what I think! Stay tuned.

Did you catch Lin-Manuel Miranda on Drunk History the other night? It was pretty funny, although I think it did not completely live up to the hype. It was most successful at painting the lead up to the Hamilton/Burr duel as all very high school-ish (if that is possible), but clearly Miranda knows Hamilton’s story so well that he can tell it pretty adeptly even while drunk. That mutes the comedic aspects of the show, though Drunk History was able to compensate for it pretty well with their always hilarious renditions of the story-teller’s words. If you missed it, you can watch it here at the Comedy Central website. (You’ll need to sign in by using your cable/satellite account info). I love that Miranda concludes by noting that although he was killed by Burr, Hamilton won in the end because someone eventually made an amazing Broadway show about how great he was. Indeed!

Looking for a good history movie on Netflix? How about a Civil War comedy? Not sure how it is possible to make a good comedy out of such a tragic event, but over on Civil War Pop, Christian McWhirter lets us know that an independent film called Men Go to Battle somewhat pulls it off, and manages to be historically accurate. I think I’ll check it out.

And while we’re back on the Civil War: there is apparently a new mini-series set to air in a couple of weeks called Blood and Fury: America’s Civil War. The rather hyperbolic title of the show does not inspire much confidence that this thing will be any good, nor does its description that tells us that the “war’s most significant battles” were “Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettsyburg, Nashville, and Petersburg.” What, no Vicksburg? How does Fredericksburg make that list but not Vicksburg? Or Atlanta, for that matter? I’ll try not to pre-judge though, so lets see how this thing turns out. It premieres Dec 14 on The American Heroes Channel.  (What the heck is that? I’ll have to check to see if I even have that!)

What’s new at some of my favorite public history sites?

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My nephews and me enjoying the Springhouse Tavern on our recent visit to Williamsburg

So it has been a bit since my last post because I have been on a history site trip with my nephews and brother over the last week. I am home now, but before I get back to posting about history related news, I thought I would change things up a bit by posting quick reviews/assessments of the public history sites we visited. I have been to all of them MANY times, but it was the first time for my nephews, and some things have recently changed, so I’ll confine most of my comments to what I noticed was new. Just some brief thoughts:

Monticello was as beautiful as ever and their fairly new visitor’s center plaza is a nice start to your time there. The film was new since my last visit, and it does a pretty good job of reviewing his life and legacy. It was celebratory, of course, but it also briefly discussed Sally Hemings, stating that “many historians now believe” he fathered children with her. The film ended by noting that we, nor Jefferson himself, have fully lived up to his  ideals/rhetoric about equality, but that our story slowly bends in that direction (footage of Obama’s inauguration even makes an appearance). The house tour was the standard one they have been giving for years, and it too included a discussion about Hemings, but what stood out the most on this recent visit was the amount of references to the other Hemingses at Monticello. It is clear that they are doing much to include this “privileged” slave family’s story into the Monticello experience. Very appropriate. I also noticed that the walking path to Jefferson’s grave has been routed in a way that ensures that visitors can only reach it by walking down Mulberry Row and the slave interpretation there.  I found it amusing, however, that our guide mentioned the new popularity of Jefferson’s nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. (She was not the only guide on our trip to do so, but more on that later). Afterwards, we hit the very touristy but convenient Michie Tavern for lunch, and it was a hit with my nephews. Love that chicken!

Next up was Gettysburg. Man, they have really done some work up there over the last few years restoring the historic landscape by clearing trees, and it seems like every time I go (which is about every-other-year) the place has changed in some way. The most obvious thing that stood out this time is that the Civil War Trust has obtained the building that served as Lee’s headquarters, taking it away from the Quality Inn that had owned and “interpreted” it for many, many years. The hotel has been leveled and the parking lot removed, thank goodness, and the building (which was home to a widow named Mary Thompson at the time of the battle) now stands alone. Work was in progress (click that link above and check out the slide show), and I fully expect that next time I visit, the building and grounds will be part of the tour and have solid NPS interpretation. My other observation is that the middle of May  was a perfect time to be there! Gettysburg was lovely as always, but the temps were very mild and the traffic was incredibly light. I’ve never been able to drive around town and through the park so easily. As usual, I made it a point to eat at the Springhouse Tavern (which is in the cellar of the Dobbin’s House restaurant). The french onion soup there is amazingly good, and never disappoints! It was another big hit with my nephews, with one of them declaring it “the coolest restaurant I’ve ever been to.” The building was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and they have long had a small display there recreating a secret chamber where runaways were hidden in the building. I wondered if they have seen more interest in this after the airing of WGN’s Underground.

After a brief side trip to Hershey’s Chocolate World (zzzzz) we made our way to Mount Vernon. Our time there was ruined by rain and especially by the large crowd of student groups that came through that day. Do not go there in May! The house tour utilizes the very ineffective setup of having a guide in each room, rather than one tour guide that takes you through as a group. The large, loud, and distracted student groups going through made for a pretty miserable experience (to be fair, with their enormous crowds it is probably the most effective thing they can do). The only thing new I encountered was a short intro film (featuring Pat Sajak, of all people), and another one with some pretty impressive Hollywood-quality production values that focuses on Washington’s meeting of Martha, his participation in Braddock’s Campaign in the Seven Years War (a thrilling battle scene), and his decision to attack at Trenton on Christmas 1776. Do not fail to visit the Reynolds museum. This was my second time in it (it is still relatively new) and it is a top-notch facility with a really good “4D” film presentation and three life-sized figures of George Washington that were created ten years ago using cutting edge forensics. (The result is very stunning).  While there, I noticed that the guides were wearing “George Washington for President” campaign pins, so I hunted one down in the gift shop. I will be wearing it a lot in the coming months as a statement about him and the top two candidates we have this fall.
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The last stop was Virginia’s “Historic Triangle” of Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg. This area on the Virginia Peninsula is pretty much my favorite place in the world, so it is tough for me to be objective. At Jamestown, the latest excitement is the discovery of the first church there, which included the bodies of 4 early leaders of the colony and was the site of John Rolfe and Pocohontas’ marriage. This news broke last summer, but they have good interpretation of it now. We took a tour with a young lady that works on the archeological project and she did an amazing job. (I wish I had gotten her name). Over at Yorktown, we took a ranger tour (always take the ranger tours!) with another very gifted public historian (I also failed to get her name). While discussing Hamilton’s famous leadership of the attack on redoubt #10, she mentioned the Broadway musical and explained that they have had school groups coming in now specifically asking about Hamilton because their teachers had used the soundtrack in class. There is a song on it about Yorktown that gets some facts wrong, but, as the ranger noted, anything that gets kids curious about history is a good thing.

Last was Colonial Williamsburg. As we know, they have been making some strange decisions there lately, so I was curious to see if things have noticeably changed. This pains me to say, but the biggest thing I observed was a very large drop in acting talent among the “people of the past,” as well as on the tours and evening programs. There were a lot of new faces, so it makes me wonder if they have lost some of their talent because of recent decisions. The new “Pirate Trial” was a good time (nephews loved it), but it deviates little from the formula of the famous “Witch Trial” that has been a Williamsburg standard for many decades. They also now have the Capitol, Courthouse, Magazine, and Governor’s Palace lit up at night, which is visually appealing, but definitely detracts from the historic setting. Ticket prices are still ridiculously too high, and that is especially true for their newest attraction–the chance to load and fire a flintlock musket. The $119 price tag for that experience is a bit outrageous (Ozzy Osbourne and his son have recently indulged in it for a new show on History channel). Otherwise, Colonial Williamsburg is as magical and charming as ever. In the last ten yeas or so, their slave interpretation programs have been especially strong, so I was glad to see a larger number of African American visitors than I have noticed in the past. (Still, as with most history sites, the crowds were mostly white. But that public history topic/problem/challenge is too big for this posting).

So there is what I noticed on my recent visit to some of my favorite historic sites. My nephews had a blast, and getting to show them these places for the first time was a thrill. So get out there with your families this summer and indulge in our amazing public history sites! And ALWAYS take the tours with the public historians you encounter along the way!