BY ELDON GRAHAM
The American Revolution is alive again in the streets of Philadelphia. Located in Old City at 3rd & Chestnut Streets is The Museum of The American Revolution, the city’s newest attraction, housing over 250 years of American, British, French and Native American tribal history.
Kicking it off was a stellar opening ceremony, at which regional favorite former VP Joe Biden cut the ceremonial ribbon. As the first in existence, this Philadelphia attraction looks to embody not only everything Philadelphia stood for during the American Revolution, but to include history on the 13 colonies and some lesser-known figures during the revolution who deserve recognition.
Visitors experienced the dramatic story of our nation’s founding — through the perspectives of the men and women who made it happen — when the Museum of the American Revolution opened yesterday in the heart of historic Philadelphia. The date corresponded with the 242nd anniversary of the “shot heard round the world” that ignited the fires of the Revolutionary War.
“Philadelphia was the headquarters of the Revolution,” said Michael Quinn, president and CEO of the museum. “The museum will serve as a portal to Philadelphia’s great historic landmarks — Independence Hall, Carpenters’ Hall, Franklin Court and innumerable others — making the city the richest and most-exciting destination for those interested in exploring the birth of our nation.”
Inside the museum you will find extraordinary permanent and temporary exhibit galleries, theaters, education spaces, collection storage, a café, a museum store, offices and a welcoming lobby.
Highlighted as the “the crown jewel” of the museum is George Washington’s Headquarters Tent that is one of the most-iconic surviving artifacts from the revolution. The tent’s journey from the Washington family to the museum is a fascinating one.
Per Virginia Jarvas Whelan, an art conservationist and one of the repairers of the tent, “Mary Custis Lee, who was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, sold it to an Episcopalian minister at Valley Forge Park, Rev. Burk. It was in possession of a Martha Washington descendent from the time Washington died until 1906.”
Many historians will know Lee as the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who possessed the tent until federal soldiers seized it at the beginning of the Civil War. The tent was returned to the Lee family 40 years later.
Rev. Burk purchased the tent for the historical society with the dream that one day the tent would be on display in a museum like this one. One hundred eleven years later, the Reverend’s dream has come true.
“What’s exciting about the tent is its provenance is known,” Whelan explained. “We can document where it has been every step of the way and that way we can show it is the actual tent.”
Whelan had to stitch almost-invisible nylon to repair some of the damage the tent had suffered over time. It’s took her 525 hours, over a year to repair it.
Another person who spent time working on the tent was Alex Stadel, a structural engineer with Keast & Hood. Stadel worked a couple hundred hours as well to get the tent supported correctly for display. “There is an aluminum umbrella structure underneath the tent that supports it,” he said. “We made an umbrella overtop with a new fabric and the artifact just gently drapes overtop like a tablecloth.”
Sixteen magnificently crafted galleries inhabit the hallways of the museum. As a whole, they tackle four questions for visitors: 1) How did people become revolutionaries? 2) How did the revolution survive its darkest hours? 3) How revolutionary was the war? 4) What kind of nation did the revolutionaries create?
For example, the famous revolutionary phrase “No Taxation without Representation” is displayed at the beginning of the exhibits detailing how the 13 colonies did not like to be governed from afar by their absentee king of England.
Another exhibit gives insight into the struggles of raising an army out of farmers and other people who had never carried a musket their entire lives. Each exhibit aims to give you the impression you are back in the 18th century fighting for independence.
The museum pays tribute to the Oneida nation of Native Americans, who fought in the Revolutionary War for the colonists. There is an exhibit dedicated to their service to the revolution, explaining how they had to choose between fighting for the British, the colonies or remaining neutral.
One of the premier collections of its kind, the museum includes several thousand historic artifacts from the period of the American Revolution, including a number of Washington’s other personal belongings, as well as an impressive assortment of period weaponry, soldiers’ and civilians’ personal items, fine art, letters, diaries, and manuscripts. About half of the objects are on loan and the other half belong to the museum.
One construction piece that can be found in the museum is the replica of a privateer ship. The ship was built specifically for the museum by the Independent Seaport Museum’s boat-building workshop, Workshop on the Water. One of the builders, Gabe Christy, gave insight into how the ship was made.
“This is a coastal merchant that was converted into a warship,” Christy says. It took the builders approximately nine months to complete this replica for the Museum of the American Revolution.
Another remarkable structure is the America’s first Liberty Tree replica. Created by the company Scenery First, the Boston Liberty Tree replica was modeled after an elm tree, said Samuel Gilmar, one of the people responsible for its creation. The Liberty Tree which was used during the colonial era as a destination for news postings and early discussions of the revolution.
Gilmar continued, “The Liberty Tree was used to send out notices; that’s why you see these added vocations of the signs to tell people in the community what was going on regarding the country and its state in the Revolutionary War.”
Among the museum’s esteemed supporters are former Pennsylvania governor, Philadelphia mayor, and current board member of the museum, Ed Rendell.
Rendell hailed the museum’s offerings as a rich experience of the American Revolution. “It’s an amazing story how a ragtag group of farmers and shopkeepers beat the greatest army and navy in the world at the time, aided by veteran soldiers,” he said. “How did they do it? Well, they did it because they were fighting for an idea.”
The museum acts as a story-teller for the colonial era, he said. “Even in Philadelphia, where we live and where we grew up with her history, when I was mayor of Philadelphia, I felt the weight of the forefathers often in decision-making,” Rendell remarked.
Rendell is not the only mayor who appreciates the museum’s presence in the City of Brotherly Love. “Philadelphia was named a Word Heritage City because it was the backdrop for the formation of our country,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “This exciting addition to our historic district will help visitors gain a greater understanding of the sacrifices that were made in order to make the idea of democracy become reality.”
Kenney believes it will have a positive effect on the city’s tourism industry. It’s a museum that every school that teaches American history in the tri-state area will be breaking down the doors to get into.