Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to take a sneak peek at the Museum of the American Revolution that opens to the public this week at Third and Chestnut streets in Old City Philadelphia. At a special Preview Day, members of the media were treated to an open house event, where they could walk through the museum and ask questions to guides who were stationed throughout each floor.
I was especially excited about the opportunity because, about a week previous, I had interviewed the artists and designers from Scenery First Inc. in Sharon Hill. The Scenery First team built many of the props and displays in the museum, including the massive Liberty Tree, and so I felt like an old pro with knowledge and some backstory when I finally got to see everything put together. Always feeling blessed to live so close to our nation’s No. 1 hotbed of liberty and history, I felt privileged to check out this new kid on the block.
The museum, which took about 14 years to bring from concept to reality, is a real beauty and seems a natural in its Old Philadelphia historic district placement, close to Independence Hall, Carpenters’ Hall, Franklin Court, City Tavern and many other historic Philadelphia landmarks. Philadelphia was the headquarters of the Revolution, so what better place to have a museum that tells the story?
On my way inside, I was approached by members of the 6ABC Action News team who were doing “man on the street” interviews. They asked if they could “test my knowledge of the Revolutionary War” with a question or two.
I had people-polled for the newspaper countless times, and therefore, I know how difficult it is to persuade people to participate. I was tempted to help them until my mind immediately flashed onto the Jay Leno street interviews where random people get asked simple questions, such as “What is the name of our first lady?” and either give answers that are so crazy and offbeat that they’re funny or they blank out altogether and can’t think when put on an unexpected spot. With my very limited knowledge of the Revolutionary War, I wasn’t even going there! I said, “Thanks, but no thanks” because I knew my chances of knowing the answer to their questions were pretty slim and I didn’t want to look like I was the history-dunce that I, pretty much, am!
They should have asked people when they came out of the museum because, like me, their knowledge of the American Revolutionary War was most likely substantially increased. Knowledge was gained in fun, interactive ways and so was an understanding of how people must have felt back then.
When I was telling some acquaintances that I planned on going to the museum, I was honestly surprised by how many people told me that they were “into” the American Revolutionary War. They will surely be in their glory with this new museum. I had always known some people who were Civil War buffs, but I truthfully never heard of any American Revolution buffs until this month. Who knew!
Beginning this week, visitors to Philadelphia — Revolutionary War buffs or not — can now live the dramatic story of our nation’s founding through the perspectives of the men and women who made it happen. The Museum of the American Revolution houses a collection of several thousand authentic historic artifacts. It was very cool to see an elaborately decorated mug wishing “Liberty Forever” to the town of Boston, a religious book owned and signed by Martha Washington, a pair of English holster pistols carried through the war, a British military musket used during the opening battles of the Revolutionary War and the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence (of course, I liked that one!). One of the most impressive items there is the actual 23-by-14-foot tent that George Washington used from about 1778 to 1783. General Washington’s headquarters tent, one of the most iconic surviving artifacts of the Revolution, served as both his office and his sleeping quarters throughout much of the war. It was within the folds of this tent that decisions were made that changed the course of history. The preserved tent is unveiled to visitors in a climate-controlled case as the dramatic ending of a 12-minute multimedia presentation on his leadership of the Revolution. A textile conservator spent more than 500 hours conserving the priceless hand-stitched linen tent.
It was amazing to me that they were able to compile all of these centuries-old artifacts from so many private collectors and other sources and arrange to have them so beautifully displayed in one place!
In addition to original artifacts, the museum uses immersive galleries, dynamic theaters and re-created historic environments to bring to life the events, people and ideals of the founding of the United States and inspire a deep appreciation of the importance of the struggle that created the American Republic.
Immersive experiences include a gallery featuring a full-scale replica of Boston’s Liberty Tree, where the first stirrings of revolt were discussed and debated; the Battlefield Theater, where visitors will experience the sensation of being on the Continental Army’s front line, facing a British assault; and a re-creation of Independence Hall reduced to a prison for American soldiers during the British occupation in Philadelphia.
Museum visitors will explore the personal stories of the diverse range of individuals who were part of establishing our nation. Visitors can expand their understanding of the “founding generation” as they listen as members of the Oneida Indian Nation debate whether to support the American cause; climb aboard a privateer ship like the one on which 14-year-old free African-American James Forten volunteered; and examine the 1773 volume “Poems on Various Subjects” by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first published black female poet.
The culminating museum experience will be the Legacy Theater, where visitors are invited to reflect on their new understanding of the struggle to create the first modern democracy and the continuing power and relevance of America’s Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality.
The museum, located at Third and Chestnut streets, encompasses 118,000 total square feet, including permanent and temporary exhibit galleries, theaters, education spaces, collection storage, a café, a museum retail store, offices and a welcoming lobby. The museum is spacious and absolutely beautiful, another Philadelphia treasure of which to be proud. I don’t know about you, but I still am in awe of the National Constitution Center and some of the other stellar attractions in the city. I have a feeling this museum will please tourists and locals alike.
The museum is a private, non-partisan and nonprofit organization, built on private donations and an endowment.
Lead gifts have come from museum Chairman H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest, the Commonwealth’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and the Oneida Indian Nation, in addition to the generosity of supporters from every state in the nation.
While I walked around, I had the chance to talk to some visitors from the Oneida Indian Nation who said they contributed to the museum to be sure that their story was included.
“Our story is not always told,” one of them explained to me. “We wanted to donate generously to ensure that we were included in the history here because we played a large part in it.”
To be honest, I got down to the Museum of the American Revolution later than I had hoped, so I saw it on the fast track, way speedier than I would have liked. That was a good thing, though, because now I have an excuse to return with my summer guests and my grandchildren because there’s something there to appeal to all ages. In fact, while viewing it, I immediately thought of my grandchildren and the countless groups of school children who will surely go through there on school field trips. From the canons out front of the museum to the theater inside that simulated smoke and gun powder, giving the sensation of being on a Revolutionary War battlefield, young people will surely learn a thing or two about this important era in American history that maybe they didn’t learn from their textbooks or iPads.
It was impossible not to become immersed in the events leading up to the Revolutionary War and the war itself. I learned so much from the artifacts, the films, the displays, the guides, seeing, touching, reading and listening. In fact, when I came out, I wasn’t quite ready to teach a history class or anything, but I had a little more Revolution-smarts so I felt camera-ready. I looked both ways and wondered where in the heck that Action News team was because maybe — just maybe — I may have finally known an answer or two!
The brand-new Museum of the American Revolution at 101 S. Third St., Philadelphia, opens to the public Wednesday, April 19, with some exciting opening day festivities planned. The date marks the 242nd anniversary of the “shot heard ’round the world” that ignited the Revolutionary War in 1775. Former Vice President Joe Biden will be joining Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough and journalist Cokie Roberts in speaking at the museum’s opening ceremony. The opening events start 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. The official dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 10:30 a.m.
For museum ticket prices, hours and more information, visit amrevmuseum.org or call 877-740-1776.