Great French-American Facts from Philly: In 1950, the U.S. Department of the Treasury commissioned the Paccard Foundry in Annecy-le-Vieux, France to forge Liberty Bell replicas that would tour each state encouraging post-war America to “Save for Your Independence,” according to the Liberty Bell Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. http://newbostonpost.com/2016/07/06/liberty-bell-replica-off-limits-to-state-house-visitors/
Philly, Yorktown: Tale of 2 American Revolution museums
Opening less than a month apart, the debut of two nationally recognized, multi-million-dollar American Revolution museums begs the question: Who owns the story of the birth of our nation?
Did America spring from a Yorktown, Virginia, battlefield, ravaged by pickaxes, cannonballs and horse carcasses before British Gen. Cornwallis surrendered his troops on Oct.19, 1781? Or was our republic sealed in the first capital, Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted?
The answer is both.
“It’s like Jewelers’ Row. We’re all in the business of getting people hooked on diamonds,” explains R. Scott Stephenson, vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming for the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Opening April 19 at Third and Chestnut Streets, the three-story brick building is located steps from Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center. It’s not to be confused with the smaller (also brick) American Revolution Museum at Yorktown near the iconic battlefield, which kicked off a 13-day grand opening celebration Thursday, March 23 with patriotic salutes to individual colonies. Delaware was first in line.
Leaders of both museums insist that the timing of their unveilings is completely coincidental. Both facilities were in development for more than a decade, both marked by fits and starts.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, formerly the Yorktown Victory Center, had a soft opening in October before all exhibits were installed. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a state agency, operates the new $51 million museum, along with the Jamestown Settlement nearby.
Philadelphia’s $120 million museum, originally slated to occupy land within Valley Forge National Park, is run by a nonprofit supported by private and state funding. The project’s biggest donor is local media entrepreneur and philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.
“I don’t see them as competition at all,” Homer Lanker, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s interpretive programs manager, said of the museum to the north. “I see both of us telling an amazing story.”
Surprisingly, top officials at both institutions said they haven’t had time to check out what the other has to offer. Nor did they have time to consult with each other’s curatorial teams to avoid duplication.
There are some striking similarities in retelling a uniquely American story: Both museums feature lanterns hanging from a “Liberty Tree” (Yorktown’s is wired for instant messages). Both include images of members of the Revolutionary War generation who survived into the age of photography. Both rely on diverse, personal narratives to keep modern viewers engaged, and chronicle simmering rifts between the American colonists and the British Crown through the afterglow of independence and the messy work of a burgeoning democracy. Neither asks the viewer to memorize dates, battles or a teacup’s provenance.
Along the way, both institutions ponder existential questions like “Are liberty and freedom synonymous?” without wading into the current political climate.
This isn’t the first time that Pennsylvania and Virginia have traded friendly fire over preserving wartime artifacts. National Civil War museums have sprouted in both Harrisburg and Richmond.
Taking a comprehensive approach to the Revolutionary period, the new museums complement an array of historic sites preserved byhe Daughters o tf the American Revolution, National Park Service and regional organizations promoting their piece of the story, according to Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, who serves on the board of the American Alliance of Museums.
Helped by the “Hamilton” craze on Broadway, the “Revolutionary War is as current today as it was then,” added Catlin-Legutko, president and CEO of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine. “Philadelphia is part of the story. Yorktown is part of the story.”
Visitors to both museums will leave with an understanding that the revolution wasn’t a one-off rebellion, waged by an appendage of a remote political entity on the other side of the Atlantic. Rather, the struggle continues today (cue former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders), because liberty remains fragile and an informed citizenry is, by no means, guaranteed.
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” English-American writer and revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote at the close of 1776. “Yet we have this consolation with us…”
“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Yorktown: Where American independence was won
What sets the Yorktown museum apart is its backdrop, the Siege of Yorktown, often seen as the culminating battle of the war. It was here that Washington’s army, with a helping hand from the French, trapped Cornwallis’ troops camped against the York River. An immersive film inside the museum deposits visitors on the Chesapeake for a windy, explosive Battle of the Capes, which resulted in a significant French blockade that choked Cornwallis from reinforcements.
Next door to the museum is an expanded “living history” farm and recreated Continental Army encampment, using an authentic Von Steuben layout.
Interested in enlisting? You’ll have to be a man between the ages of 16 and 60, with no obvious signs of scurvy or smallpox, and as tall as a halberd (a combined spear-and-battle-ax).
Join for three years and receive a bounty of $20; stay for the entire war and reap 100 acres of land. In exchange, you’ll have to endure brutal winters vomiting and sweating the sickness away, joined by five other guys in a teepee.
Children will delight in using sandbags to shore up the camp’s defenses, taking home musket cartridges as souvenirs. Artillery demonstrations and military drills promise continuous booms.
Nearby is a middle-class farmhouse, patterned after the home belonging to the real Edward Moss family of York County. In the kitchen, a historical re-enactor bakes chess pie in a Dutch oven (like pecan pie, minus the pecans). Don’t touch because they didn’t have food inspectors back then.
The outdoor area has tripled in size since the Yorktown Victory Center opened in 1976 as part of Virginia’s bicentennial celebration. In 2007, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation decided to replace the outdated museum and beef up attractions on its 22-acre site.
The decision had nothing to do with the development of another revolution museum more than 300 miles away, according to Yorktown museum leaders. History buffs will travel for their fix, while casual visitors can incorporate either museum into their regional travel plans, said Susan Bak, the foundation’s senior director of marketing and retail operations.
With 22,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, the new Yorktown museum is a testament to the ingenuity of Washington’s scrappy army against mounting hardships. It also documents how to live through a war, through the eyes of 20 historical characters.
They include Sarah Osborn Benjamin, a former servant who married a Continental soldier and traveled with him to the battlefield to distribute food and coffee while skirting cannonballs; Peter Harris of the Catawba Nation, who joined the 3rd South Carolina Regiment; Billy Flora, a free African American solidier who displayed courage at the Battle of Great Bridge in Virginia; and Trip, a Wheaten Terrier and a patriot.
“We’re not telling the story of war,” the foundation’s senior curator, Thomas Davidson, said. “We’re telling the story of the creation of the nation.”
Of the estimated 500 artifacts on display, about 100 are from the original museum.They include decorative objects, cookware, compasses, toys, tools and furniture. Life-cast figures depict gory battle scenes. In assembling the hand-sewn costume for an English captain, museum conservators took his red coat to a firing range to mark authentic bullet holes.
Among the museum’s prized artifacts are a rare oil portrait from around 1733 of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a freeborn educated African who was kidnapped and sold as a slave. It is believed to be one of the earliest known portraits of an African enslaved in the colonies.
A silver-dollar-size treaty badge from 1710 is one of only four in existence. The British gave such tokens to Native Americans to encourage trade in furs, pottery and other goods. Also on display is a rare first model “Brown Bess” British infantry musket from 1741, along with an early 19th-century sandstone marker from a Pennsylvania ferry house, carved with an eagle, stars and the word “Liberty.” A July 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence is tucked inside a shrine-like enclosure surrounded by weaponry.
The museum devoted 10 percent of its budget to interactive technology and it shows. Examples include a Monty Python-esque film on the Bill of Rights, hologram-like soldiers from the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina and mobile app tours from the perspectives of different characters. One fun game allows participants to pick a side, strategy and battle and watch the fighting unfold on a monitor. Shortly after, the historically correct sequence of events appears.
Museum leaders hope visitors will take advantage of the nearby Jamestown Settlement, which is also benefiting from a $10 million upgrade. Paid visitors to both attractions totaled more than 560,000 last year.
Interactive exhibits at Jamestown explore the Powhatan Indian, English and West Central African cultures that converged in America’s first permanent English colony, founded in 1607. Visitors can walk aboard three recreated ships that brought the English colonists to Virginia.
In July, the settlement will open a “Pocahontas Reimagined” exhibition, in tribute to the favorite daughter of supreme Indian Chief Powatan. Pocahontas, whose image has been manipulated over history, married Englishman and tobacco planter John Rolfe and helped smooth tensions between the two cultures.
Philadelphia: Headquarters of the Revolution
The centerpiece of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is a fragile, 10-foot-tall elliptical tent that was missing its left side before conservators intervened. Dubbed the “first Oval Office,” the linen working and sleeping quarters for Washington and his enslaved assistant, Billy Lee, has been preserved behind shatter-resistant glass in its own auditorium at the museum.
The 23-foot-long, 14-foot-wide exterior tent was made in Reading, Pennsylvania, while Washington was encamped in Valley Forge in 1778. It traveled to the Battle of Yorktown; key decisions were reached within its folds. The museum also holds William Trego’s iconic painting, “The March to Valley Forge,” along with a faded silk banner with 13 white, six-pointed stars that traveled with Washington.
Compared to Yorktown, the Philadelphia museum boasts a more expansive 3,000-piece collection, the core of which was assembled by the now-defunct Valley Forge Historical Society. Museum planners originally proposed building on 78 acres inside Valley Forge Park, before being inundated with traffic, noise and pollution concerns.
In 2009, they brokered a deal with the National Park Service to swap the Valley Forge land for the Chestnut Street site, the former home of the Independence National Historical Park Visitor Center.
Stored for a time in a secret location in the suburbs, collection pieces will rotate to lessen damage from the elements. Galleries are arranged chronologically from the rise of armed resistance to British taxation in the 1760s through the creation of the American republic.
There is a brief overview of the ratification of the Constitution so as not to encroach on messaging at the National Constitution Center.
Technology plays a less prominent role at the Philadelphia museum compared to Yorktown. In an immersive theater, visitors are fired on by the British light infantry while trying to defend a wall at the Battle of Brandywine. More common are basic flipboards with text throughout the galleries and films that reference the illuminated artifacts below.
“Dependence on technology will make you outmoded,” Philadelphia museum Curator Philip Mead explained. Surveys show that younger museum visitors want to unplug, he adds.
Among the museum’s highlights: A terracotta bust of Washington by Revolutionary War veteran William Rush, who founded the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; a signed 1773 volume by Phillis Wheatley, American’s first published black female poet; and a copy of the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence in the Pennsylvania Evening Post.
Visitors can also hop aboard a large-scale replica of an 18th-century privateer ship, and marvel at a piece of the gilded lead statue of King George III, which was toppled in Bowling Green, New York, and melted down into musketballs.
The message of ordinary people living through extraordinary times is reinforced throughout the museum, from a pair of baby booties made from the pilfered coat of a British footsoldier, to hand-forged shackles small enough to fit a child.
Nearby, life-cast figures representing members of the Oneida Indian Nation, a major museum donor, debate which side to join after the pivotal Battle of Princeton in 1777.
“They are in our story not just for modern ideas of diversity,” said Mead, “but they are truly significant actors in the American revolution.”
Museum leaders expect more than 500,000 annual visitors following the April 19 kickoff event, which will feature Former Vice President Joe Biden, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough, and journalist-political commentator Cokie Roberts. The celebration coincides with the anniversary of the “shot heard round the world” at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, which catapulted the colonies on their eight-year revolutoonary road.
As of mid-March, the museum had presold 25,000 tickets; weddings and special events are booked through 2020, a spokeswoman said.
There were no outright heroes or villains during the Revolutionary War, despite what appears in books and on film, according to Mead.
For instance, Charles Wilson Peale, an esteemed painter and war hero, also headed a Philadelphia committee to confiscate the land of Loyalists.
The colonists’ pursuit of freedom while condoning slavery is a paradox, effortlessly articulated in one of the museum’s glass cases. It contains a reproduction of a silver slave branding tool, flanked on either side by hat badges proclaiming “liberty.”
In the end, the trajectory of the American Revolution resembled that of a symphony, said Mead.
“You’re uplifted, you crash, and you rise up again.”
Contact Margie Fishman at (302) 324-2882, on Twitter @MargieTrende or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A tale of two museums:
American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
Size: 22,000-square-feet of gallery space in an 80,000-square-foot building
Cost: $51 million
Location: 200 Water St., Yorktown, Virginia
Tickets: Adults, $12; Children ages 6-12, $7; free for children under age 6. Discounts available for combination tickets with Jamestown Settlement.
Information: (888) 593-4682 or www.historyisfun.org
Museum of the American Revolution
Size:32,000-square-feet of gallery space in a 118,000-square-foot building
Cost: $120 million
Tickets: Adults, $19; college students and military, $17; children ages 6 and up, $12; free for children under age 6. Tickets valid for two consecutive days.
Location: 101 S. Third St., Philadelphia
Information: (215) 253-6731 or www.amrevmuseum.org