You know what I love? Being able to write that something met/exceeded my expectations, which is what happened when I visited the Museum of the American Revolution this past weekend.
What is the Museum of the American Revolution you ask? Well, almost exactly what it sounds like. Philadelphia’s newest museum explores the events leading up to, and the battles of the war that created this here United States. When I say newest museum, I do mean very new. It just opened this past April and is located in Old City, just a short walk from Independence Hall, The Constitution Center, Liberty Bell, etc., etc. A perk of not being right on the Independence Mall with all the other stuff? Easier access to Old City’s excellent eating scene either right before, or right after (or both) you visit the museum.
One of my main complaints when it comes to historical museums/exhibits, is that far too often they sanitize history in way that’s both off-putting, and really an insult to a 2017 audience. Listen, and I’m going to try my best to not get political here, which is becoming increasingly hard, but I’m a fan of America. I’d even go to say that I’m pretty patriotic. I’d say that I think American is pretty great, and it didn’t need anyone to bring that greatness back (ok, so I got political). I think you could also be patriotic, celebrate our country, think America is great, but also admit that there’s been some pretty dark things that have happened in order for us to have got where we are. History is messy. It’s gross. It’s unfair, and you know what? That’s fine. We should talk about it. It’s a lot more interesting to me then George Washington chopping down that cherry tree. I was happy then, to read the following New York Times article that discussed the museum’s portrayal of the American Revolution as a “warts and all” affair. That’s the story I want to hear.
The museum is located in an impressive looking building on the corner of third and Chestnut, directly across from Alexander Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States, and a row of very tasty looking restaurants, one of which let me sample far too many flavors of gelato. The museum itself isn’t huge. It’s confined mostly to half of the second floor. A large portion of the building contains a grand lobby, staircase, and introductory movie theater that almost all the ushers urged us to skip (probably because we arrived at 3:30, and the museum closes at 5). This being said, the amount of artifacts and information in the exhibits is dense. At one point I would’ve guessed I’d gotten to the halfway point, yet that shot heard round the world in Lexington and Concord hadn’t even happened yet. Give yourself some time for this one. Our hour and a half was not enough. I’d also maybe wait till the novelty has worn off a bit. The museum was packed when we went, and I found myself moving on from some exhibits specifically to be at a less crowded area.
The museum certainly did not shy away from the fact that our founding fathers weren’t 100% patriotic heroes, but rather complex, flawed people living and operating with outdated values and mindsets. The museum takes pains to include the stories and reactions of people from all nationalities, not just the patriots. The British aren’t painted as a tyrannical enemy, and the patriots aren’t whitewashed in the standard textbook fashion, while particular attention is given to the experiences of African Americans, many of whom sided with the British as they thought they may have a better chance of freedom there, and Native Americans, one of whom described the two warring parties, as different ends of the scissors, both would end up cutting them up in the end, that I found particularly apt. They also gave you the stories of British loyalists, reminding us that not everyone was 100% behind this whole America idea, and discussed how succeeding from the crown often was more beneficial to those of higher socio-economic standings. A particularly insightful exhibit displayed how PR and propaganda is not a new tactic, showing how both sides manipulated the public into seeing the Boston Massacre from their angle. It was a well-done, nuanced view of what was not a cut and dry movement, but a messy, violent war in an era where sexism and racism were commonplace.
I guess what I’m saying is that this is the American Revolution for an audience who’s becoming increasingly used to full(ish) transparency. If you want George Washington and the cherry tree, or believe that the Delaware at Valley Forge is indeed the size of a lake and riddled with ginormous ice bergs, like the couple I eavesdropped on while waiting for my brother to use the restroom, who thought this museum was “way too ideological, and borderline disrespectful,” then I’d maybe just skip it and head on over to take selfies with the Liberty Bell. Either way, make sure to stop by Capofitto and sample the gelato.