To say that Philadelphia played an important role in Colonial America can’t be overstated. The city is home to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Valley Forge and the Brandywine sit just a stone’s throw away. Yet somehow, the City of Brotherly Love didn’t have a single museum dedicated to the movement that founded the United States of America. Until now! I recently got a chance to get a sneak peek at the brand new Museum of the American Revolution, which opens on Wednesday, April 19th.
About the Museum
The Museum of the American Revolution was a long time coming. More than a decade ago, it was merely an idea. Then in 2009 Philadelphia was picked as the site of the museum. In 2014 they broke ground on the corner of 3rd and Chestnut Streets in Philly’s Old City neighborhood. It is just a few blocks from Independence Hall. Now, it’s finally here.
The Museum of the American Revolution is a state-of-the-art building with 118,000 square feet. And, boy, is it impressive! From the lobby, an exceedingly grand elliptical staircase ushers you upstairs to the exhibition.
Engaging & Interactive Exhibits
Visitors to museums these days have high expectations. They are expecting a “wow.” And wow is just what the Museum of the American Revolution does. Using stories, objects and interactive exhibits, the museum is carefully curated to cover from about 1760 to 1783.
Every gallery is full of high quality hands-on exhibits. Whether that’s opening doors to reveal various artifacts or getting a whiff of some tea similar to the kind that got trashed during the Boston Tea Party. (Although, I have to admit, I couldn’t smell any tea and that’s one place where my nose knows!) Elsewhere you can board a privateer ship just like those used by the colonists. This one was specially built across town at the Independence Seaport Museum over the course of a year.
There are also a number of digital touch-screen installations to interact with. These interactive features are impressive and easy to use in addition to being informative. You can explore protest posters in detail, learn how real people felt about the Revolution, or get a virtual hands-on with various 18th century weapons.
History Brought to Life
There are also seven video experiences throughout the galleries. Each video tells a different story in a different way. For example, in the Independence Theater visitors can sit in a high-back Windsor chair in a room modeled after Independence Hall and listen to the Founding Fathers. Dr Philip Mead, director of curatorial affairs and chief historian, shared that it took roughly two years to conceive and bring to life these immersive video experiences. While videos at museums can sometimes be off putting, these are inviting and engaging.
Similarly, the Oneida Nation Theater uses life-like mannequins. As audio plays of a debate between the Oneida members about whether to ally themselves with the colonists or simply mind their own business, lights from above draw your attention to which mannequin is “speaking” and cast the others into darkness. The Mashantucket Pequot Museum also uses these detailed, life-size mannequins. It’s a highly effective technique in giving depth and character to history.
The Highlight of the Collection
Without a doubt, the real gem of the museum’s collection is General George Washington’s tent. It served as his office and sleeping quarters throughout much of the war, including that long hard winter spent at Valley Forge. The museum clearly know what a prize the tent is. It has its own separate dedicated area. The tent underwent 500 hours of conservation and is now in a climate-controlled case and displayed fully constructed using a custom built system to minimize stress on the fabric. It is accompanied by a ten minute long multimedia presentation.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
Often the focus of the founding of the United States is on a group of white men who gathered in Philadelphia. The museum shines a light on all those who fought for or were affected by the Revolution. This includes women (some of whom fought disguised as men), Native Americans who allied with the colonists, and those of African descent (both free and enslaved).
The museum isn’t just a recounting of a bunch of battles. It shares stories and faces that haven’t been fully recognized even after hundreds of years. The Revolution was more than simply those who took up arms against King George III. There were also small, everyday acts. The museum shares these stories.
Grand Opening & Visiting the Museum of the American Revolution
The museum will celebrate its grand opening on Wednesday, April 19th. No less than Vice President Joe Biden and journalist Cokie Roberts scheduled to speak. By all accounts, it will be quite a celebration.
Don’t worry if you can’t make the museum for the grand opening. The museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, with longer hours for the summer. Visitors do need timed tickets but they are good for two consecutive days.
The Museum of the American Revolution is an impressive museum. It puts a fresh spin on stories we know and shares those we don’t. It fills the missing piece in Philadelphia’s historical and cultural offerings. I enjoyed getting a chance to explore the country’s founding in an interesting way that left the classroom and textbooks behind. It’s a museum not to be missed — you won’t be disappointed!
Museum of the American Revolution
101 South Third Street, Philadelphia, PA
Thank you to the Museum of the American Revolution! All opinions expressed are my own as are all photos.