A Revolutionary Day at the Museum

In April of 2017 the Museum of the American Revolution opened it doors. On Monday, my family joined some friends to visit the new site.

USA Button
Buttons like this, created for soldiers in the Continental Army, are the first wide-spread use of “USA” as shorthand for the country.
It might seem strange, given my tendency to see violence as a failure rather than a cause for celebration, but I have a passion for studying America’s Revolutionary Period. The years between 1763 and 1800 are some of the most interesting in the political history of North America, and I find the period fascinating. So when I first saw news of this Museum’s construction several years ago I knew it would be on my “must see” list.

The Museum is certainly worth a trip. There are some significant artifacts on display, and the story of the Revolutionary Period is mapped out in decent fashion. As with most history Museums there is a lot of reading, which might turn off younger visitors, but there are some attempts at interactive displays which might do a good job capturing interest.

My biggest complaint about the Museum’s presentation is the near complete-omission of the Philadelphia Campaign. The Battle of Brandywine is given a short movie presentation, complete with rumbling floor and flashing strobes to simulate musket fire, but there is next to no context for the battle itself. Nothing is said about why the flanking maneuver worked as well as it did, Lafayette’s role in defending the flank, or why the battle was so important even though it led to the loss of Philadelphia. The way the story is presented Washington loses at Brandywine, the British march into Philadelphia, and the Continentals retreat to Valley Forge. The Battle of the Clouds, the Paoli Massacre, the stand at Fort Mifflin, the destruction of the Pennsylvania Navy, and the Battle of Germantown are all skipped. Maybe it’s because I used to ride my bicycle on the roads where the armies marched in that latter battle, or perhaps because the first Continental encampment after the capture of Philadelphia was on the hills overlooking my hometown, but this omission glared at me. Any museum is going to have to skip portions of the story in order to keep the presentation moving, but the Museum of the American Revolution is in Philadelphia! You’d think the events which surrounded this great city would have been given proper due.

That isn’t to say I was offended out of my enjoyment. There were several video presentations which do a splendid job of explaining the on-going nature of the American Revolution — capturing the need for “All men are created equal” to (a) be true for “all men” and (b) not be limited to only men. There is also an excellent display focusing on the Native nations and their interactions with the war, both on British and American sides. To the credit of the museum’s creators slavery, and the gaping irony of slave owners fighting for liberty, was not buried in the narrative. The plight of slaves, and their responses to the war as moral agents in their own right, is upheld. Though they did white wash Washington’s view of Negro Soldiers a good bit 1.

Perhaps the two most interesting artifacts in the museum share a direct link to General Washington.

The first was his blue sash, which he used to designate his rank as Commander-in-Chief, and is depicted in one of the most famous portraits of the General. . The museum has both this portrait of the General and the actual sash worn by him, on display in the same case. Sadly it’s a temporary arrangement, but seeing them together is amazing, as the last time they were in the same room was when the portrait was being created. Tidbits like this get my nerd heart fluttering.

The second is Washington’s campaign tent. This tent, passed down through generations, resides in a theatre just outside the main exhibit area. It rests behind a screen, upon which its story is told. The tent is revealed over the course of the presentation, until the audience realizes they are in the midst of a piece of history. The lights in the Tent’s chamber then come up full, accompanied by a powerful score. The presentation is excellent and, again, as a history nerd I found it fascinating.

My best photos from the day can be found on my SmugMug page. If you are ever in Philadelphia, and have a good two hours to spare, this would be a good way to spend them.

  1. Washington was a great man, but he was a man of his time, and as a wealthy Virginia planter he was less than honest with himself about his slaves’ existence.