“How about we tear down that statue of the King,” said Dr. Philip Mead, Chief Historian and Director of Curatorial Affairs at the brand new Museum of the American Revolution. “Let’s begin with something that confronts you with the revolutionariness of this. The galleries move you along with a series of questions. Beginning with ‘How do people become revolutionaries?” That is one of the many questions that the museum tries to answer and one of the many stories it tells through authentic artifacts, immersive galleries, theaters, and re-created environments.
The dream of a Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia began over a century ago when an Episcopal minister Rev. W. Herbert Burk purchased George Washington’s Headquarters Tent from Mary Custis Lee. Mary was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and the Wife of General Robert E. Lee.
Reverend Burk raised $5,000 from hundreds of ordinary Americans to purchase the tent and other personal items of George Washington. It was Burk’s passion and collection that would become the basis of the Valley Forge Historical Society and in 2017 the Museum of the American Revolution.
“Our predecessor organization was the Valley Forge Historical Society, “said Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, Vice President of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programming, “so for the last century, the collection grew out there. In 2009 we arranged a land exchange through the park service. 78 acres are now incorporated into Valley Forge National Historic Park and we acquired this site which was the bicentennial era visitor’s center. It took about seven years to get it up and out of the ground and ready to open.”
Like Burk, the Museum of the American Revolution sought funding from numerous sources.
“We had incredibly generous private donors, we had a capital grant from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and then another of our really large donors was the Oneida Indian Nation in New York. That base really got us up and going, but we had founding members from all fifty states. People have given $35, $65, $100, $1,000. It’s not been the kind of museum where the federal government pays for all of it,” said Stephenson.
“How do you tell the story of the American revolution?,” asked Dr,. Philip Mead, Chief Historian, and Director of Curatorial Affairs, “When Scott first contacted me and said he could use some help he kind of suggested that it was research work and I was used to that. Then I got on this phone call with movie developers and interactive developers and I said, ‘Well what would you like to know from me?’ I thought they were going to ask me what I thought about Lieutenant Colonel Gainsford or something. Instead, they wanted to know ‘How do we begin and end a story about the American Revolution?’ And I thought this is a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. It was a couple years later when we figured out the second half of that question which is how do you end it? Well, let’s bring people back to that same spot today where the king was torn down. Then I discovered that the fence that surrounds it still exists but it is now a park with people in it. I thought, ‘what a perfect metaphor. The king is gone but the people are here.
Interactive digital installations include Posters of Protest: 1765 – 1774, Arms of Independence, 1775 – 1783, Seasons of Independence: The People Speak, January – July 1776, and Finding Freedom: African Americans in Wartime Virginia.
“These were people whose lives were largely undocumented,” said Joel Patterson, Director of Strategic Communications at Bluecadet, ”
Of all the artifacts on display, one, in particular, speaks to Dr. Mead.
“There is this leather cap of a Captain –Lieutenant from a Rhode Island artillery unit who was killed at the battle of Brooklyn Heights and it says on it, ‘for our country’ and then the motto ‘In God we hope’ and I thought that that says it all. So when that came in, it’s on loan to us from the Varnum Armory Museum in East Greenwich RI. So when that rolled into the collection room it was in the midst of one of our very busy days here and I just said, ‘everybody, just give me a minute, I just need to be in the presence of this for the first time in my life,’ having seen grainy pictures of it 20-30 years ago when I was a kid.”
“We also have an object that I often call our Piece of the True Cross,” said Mead, “which is the piece of the bridge timber from the bridge at the ‘shot heard around the world’. When I first heard about that I thought, come on, really? Is this really a piece? How do they know that? But as we dug into the story it was certifiable. It checks out. Being in the presence of all these things still hasn’t hit me.”
“Starting in 2018, we have a 5,000 sq. ft. Changing exhibition gallery downstairs. We will now start to do temporary and changing exhibitions that explore different topics in more depth.” Said Stephenson. “Those will be some shows we hope to send on the road to other cities.”
The Museum’s grand opening festivities will begin on Wednesday, April 19, the 242nd anniversary of the ‘shot heard round the world’ that ignited the Revolutionary War. The opening events will begin at 8 a.m. with a program that stretches from Washington Square to Independence Hall and culminates on the plaza in front of the Museum, highlighting the rich Revolutionary history of Philadelphia and engaging as many people as possible.
Museum of the American Revolution
101 S. 3rd Street Philadelphia, PA 19106
Starting Wednesday, April 19:
Open daily from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Summer hours: 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Tickets: Adults $19, Youth $12, Children 5 and under free