ot so long ago the very idea of building a museum in Philadelphia to tell the story of the American Revolution would have been laughable, since Philadelphia itself is just such a museum. Here within a few paces are Carpenters Hall, where the Continental Congress first assembled; Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was debated anxiously and then ratified; the Liberty Bell, with its thrilling injunction from Leviticus: “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof.” These objects speak eloquently of the central event in American history—so long as one knows something of that history.
Those of us over 50 will remember when American history was taught as an instrument of citizenship. The Revolution that gave us our independence also gave us our system of government, and so to learn about the Revolution was to learn citizenship. Between the history lesson in the classroom and the Fourth of July parade, there was a seamless continuity. But American history has since been purged of its civic content. Today’s pupil is taught to look at it with the disinterested detachment of the professional historian, not as a participant with a stake in the outcome. Even the nominally traditional Common Core standards ask pupils to see the Revolution from all sides and to write a broadside representing “the Loyalist perspective.”
Such a widely inclusive approach broadens our understanding of the Revolution even as it diminishes its significance. If all history is simply the perpetual contention between individuals pursuing their naked self-interest, then any invocation of ideals or principles must be suspect. Pupils so trained are hardly likely to regard the American Revolution as a great step forward in human history. They need to be told why the events in Independence Hall were indeed unique—even exceptional—but they are unlikely to learn it from their teachers. At the very moment when a Museum of the American Revolution becomes necessary, it becomes unattainable.
or this reason, the fact that there is a Museum of the American Revolution at all is something of a miracle. It certainly would not have happened had there not already been an embryonic one waiting in the wings. The embryo was the collection of W. Herbert Burk, an Episcopalian minister who in 1903 conceived the idea of building a national memorial at Valley Forge. He collected artifacts and relics, but after his death in 1933, the idea languished. In 2005, a philanthropist named H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest became interested in the project and bought land at Valley Forge to build the museum. But Lenfest ran up against intense local opposition and was forced in the end to swap his site with the National Park Service. In exchange he received a prime site in Philadelphia, a few blocks from Independence Hall. It is here, in its Robert A.M. Stern–designed neocolonial building, that the Museum of the American Revolution opened this April.
The exhibition strategy is refreshingly, even startlingly, traditional. Recently it has become fashionable for museums to abjure an orderly system of knowledge. Any such system, according to those fed on Michel Foucault, is arbitrary and serves merely to project power. But the American Revolution was a contest of power, and the museum presents that contest in lucid chronological order in 18 major and minor spaces, arranged in linear sequence. One passes through the unruly pre-revolutionary 1760s, the first feints and skirmishes, the Declaration of Independence, and so forth, all the way to the ratifying of the Constitution. The story is told with a lively mixture of items, new and old. The core is formed by the Reverend Burk’s venerable collection of wooden canteens, exquisitely carved powder horns, and an arsenal’s worth of swords, rifles, and blunderbusses. These are supplemented with a variety of interactive computer displays, historical tableaux, a simulated battlefield theater, and even a full-size replica of a schooner. The visual and aural density is staggering.
The interactive computer displays are to be expected, but not the historical tableaux. At one time these were the chief attraction of any local historical society—those mannequins in loose-fitting period clothes, settling into moth-eaten ruin. Most have long since been put out of their misery and replaced by video monitors, but they have now been out of fashion long enough to seem fresh and daring. The museum has seven of these tableaux in which life-size figures dramatize historic scenes. In one, an outraged mob drags New York’s public statue of King George III from its pedestal; in another, an exasperated George Washington breaks up a snowball fight among rowdy Continental soldiers. The figures are uncannily realistic, as well they should be, having been cast from life by “a specialty sculptural fabrication studio that has created performance pieces for Lady Gaga among other high-profile projects.”
At times these crowd-pleasing tableaux distract from the quiet artifacts nearby that in their way are wonderful. A printed loyalty oath shows the citizens of Exeter, New Hampshire, renouncing their allegiance to King George III, and thereby risking their lives, in 13 careful signatures. One recalls from youth the horrors of the intolerable Stamp Act, and here are actual documents, to which is affixed a surprisingly innocuous seal. And for readers of the naval novelist Patrick O’Brian, here is a display of bar- and chain-shot, those gruesome iron projectiles that were meant to spin like a whirligig and mangle both a ship’s rigging and human limbs.
By far the most moving and unexpected display is of George Washington’s own Battle Tent. Visitors enter a comfortably intimate theater to watch a film about the Continental Army’s winter at Valley Forge. At first one thinks that the film itself is the point but then, wondrously, the screen lifts and one is looking at the real thing. Because the linen fabric is fragile and degrades under light, it can be shown only sparingly and in subdued light, all of which only adds to the solemnity and reverence. This is precisely what a museum should do: show us objects in a way that helps us see them more clearly, and through them see history more clearly.
Any museum that displays real objects enjoys one great advantage over its digital competitors, and that is that it offers physical reality, not virtual reality. Real objects made of real materials, all showing the poignant marks of time and use, of neglect and care. These engage the viewer at a visceral level and in a way that no pixilated object ever can. But in order to do this, a clear distinction must be drawn between the real and the pretend, and here the museum falters.
Committed to creating “immersive environments and interactive experiences that will bring to life the personal stories of the founding generation,” the Museum of the American Revolution found itself limited by its traditional collection of revolutionary relics piously gathered a century ago. On the one hand, this has spared it from the political tendentiousness that has come to figure in a large way in history exhibitions during the past generation. There is none of the reductive identity politics, for example, that disfigured the nearby re-creation of Washington’s house in Philadelphia.1 But such a collection of family keepsakes is ill-suited to presenting the broad social history to which the museum aspires, and so the curators have chosen to fill them out with a mass of prints and paintings. With a half dozen or so exceptions, all of these are facsimiles, photo-reproductions of works of art that hang elsewhere. This is acceptable museum practice only when the facsimiles are identified as such, and I counted only two instances where the image was clearly identified as a reproduction. Most egregious is the image that introduces the entire exhibition, Allan Ramsay’s famous portrait of King George III from the National Portrait Gallery in London. This is not so much a facsimile as a parody; it bulges into our world, as if trying diligently to become sculpture and failing in the process.
The danger is not that a viewer might take these facsimiles for the genuine artifact but the other way round. The unacknowledged jumbling of the real and the imitation tends to downgrade all the objects into generic visual material, ultimately indistinguishable from the undifferentiated images that flicker across our computer screens. Here the museum squanders its one great chance to reach someone who has grown up in today’s world of easily accessible, and therefore devalued, imagery.
f this intrusive political correctness, there is surprisingly little, other than the consistent effort to give voice to those excluded in traditional accounts of the revolution, particularly slaves, Indians, and women. There is one astonishingly blatant, almost comical, example of what might be called museological pay-to-play. To complete the underfunded building project, the Oneida Nation gave $10 million, for which reason the main public space is named Oneida Hall. As a further quid pro quo, the exhibition includes a gallery in which we see Oneida Indians debating whether they should ally themselves with the British or the Americans. Here is none of the spirit of skeptical revisionism that we see elsewhere in the museum, as in the analysis of the 1770 Boston Massacre engraving, which is dissected as a study in manipulative propaganda. Instead, the contribution of the Oneida Nation is celebrated without irony or cynicism. Such episodes of feel-good inclusiveness, some of them rather spurious, led Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard to propose that what the museum displays “isn’t really history at all.”
It is true that the casual visitor will not leave the museum with anything like a truly coherent sense of the Revolutionary War, a sense of the convulsive dynamics of its strategic chessboard—the initial British policy of cutting the colonies in half by seizing control of the Hudson (which one must know in order to grasp the enormity of Benedict Arnold’s treason) or the subsequent pivot to a “southern strategy,” centered on the capture of Charleston and Savannah. Rather than focusing on decisions and their consequences, the military history on display here is impressionistic and episodic. Typical is the chamber in which the Battle of Brandywine is simulated, where visitors stand behind a low stone wall and face the British bayonet charge, advancing through billows of gunpowder smoke, wafting into the room at the key moment. This is designed to convey what historical events felt like, rather than what they meant.
And yet despite it all—despite the intrusions of ideology, the hokey tableaux, and the cloyingly simplified language of the labels—the museum somehow works. The impressionistic sense it gives of the Revolutionary War is essentially true. The war was indeed a long arduous slog that sprawled confusingly over land and sea; loyalties were indeed tested and communities cruelly divided; the calculus of attrition and willpower did count for more than strategic brilliance. The long linear sequence of galleries, experienced on foot, makes this physically palpable in a way that no book or film can.
Perhaps the Revolution will never again loom as large as it once did because of photography. The Civil War lives for us in the mournful faces photographed by Matthew Brady in a way that the stately heroes painted by John Trumbull never will. This is why Civil War films will continue to be made regularly, and Revolutionary War films infrequently. It is for this reason that the Museum of the American Revolution closes with one of the most brilliantly conceived codas imaginable—a gallery of photographs of those alive at the time of the Revolution. Fifty-six years separated the treaty that ended the war and the invention of photography, so all of the faces shown here are old and wizened. But we find ourselves in a room of people like us, and realize with a shock that up until now we have known the faces of the American Revolution only as periwigged platitudes. The exhibition could not possibly end on a more satisfying, more haunting note.
It is sometimes said that it is impossible to make a genuine anti-war movie if one shows scenes of battle. Battles are intrinsically gripping, and one is inevitably pulled into the cathartic excitement. And so while the Museum of the American Revolution may represent “an attempt to de-sacralize the Revolution,” as Edward Rothstein of the Wall Street Journal put it, its sheer sweep and scope project a heroic significance that no niggling wall text can undermine. In the end, the kitsch and the political correctness cancel each other out, and the visitor who sits in darkness contemplating Washington’s brave linen pavilion at Valley Forge will find the Revolution to be surprisingly, and movingly, re-sacralized.