J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Museum of the American Revolution Opens in Philadelphia

Today is the official opening of the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. It combines the site of the city’s old Bicentennial Visitor Center, the collections of the Valley Forge Museum, and the best interactive technology available today, as well as some new thinking about public history.

Already the “pre-open” and “preview” days have generated a lot of buzz, and here are samples of the newspaper coverage and reviews.

The Washington Post reported on the thinking behind the museum:
“We’re trying to emulate science museums. They’re a little bit better at asking questions, like ‘Are dinosaurs more like reptiles or like birds?’ They’ll involve you in the scientific process,” [museum vice president Scott] Stephenson said. “So often history museums in the past have been ‘fact, fact, fact, tea cup, fact, painting, fact, fact,’ as if history is something you just gather up and put on display.”
C.B.S. News also explored the museum design.

The New York Times found the new approach refreshing:
If it doesn’t quite throw the old heroic narrative out the window, it does draw on decades of scholarship that has emphasized the conflicts and contradictions within the Revolution, while also taking a distinctly bottom-up view of events.

Yes, bronze reliefs of Washington crossing the Delaware and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (both based on famous paintings) flank the entrance of the red-brick building, designed by Robert A. M. Stern. But upstairs, in the 16,000 square feet of galleries snaking around an airy central atrium, the common man (and woman) is king.
Edward Rothstein in the Wall Street Journal wasn’t so pleased to see new stories, but he did a poor job of explaining why:
This accompanies an attempt to de-sacralize the Revolution. It is no longer portrayed as a struggle between colonists who were either far-seeing patriots or traitorous “loyalists.” The Stamp Tax is portrayed as unexceptional. Examples are given of “propaganda” from both sides. This Revolution poses dilemmas, not doctrinal clarity.

This strengthens the history but weakens the event’s symbolic power. And though much is still excellent (including a map tracing the war’s New Jersey battles in the winter of 1776-7, the armies’ movements represented by moving lights), a price is paid. What scenes, for example, are dramatized by tableaux? The Oneida debate, the African-American conversation about loyalty, a fight among Washington’s soldiers, Loyalist cavalry battling for the British—images having less to do with the war’s significance than with today’s preoccupations with identity-based tensions. . . .

There is, in fact, a recurring tilt leftward here. Thus, while the closing film properly treats the Revolution as a continuing project, finding extensions in civil-rights movements for African-Americans, gay people and women (and less properly in associating “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations with “the fire of the Revolution’s promise”), it doesn’t recognize other aspects of that tradition: the importance of individual liberties, the inevitable messiness of the democratic process, and the exceptionalism that yet remains.
And here I thought blacks, gays, and women were deeply interested in “individual liberties” and a big part of “the inevitable messiness of the democratic process,” especially from the perspective of people who don’t want to see more about them. And I’m convinced that in a history museum what even Rothstein agrees is stronger history should outweigh an “event’s symbolic power.”

Among the museum’s early visitors was Susan Holloway Scott, who shares her perspective at Two Nerdy History Girls. And here is Nichole Louise’s report for the Journal of the American Revolution.

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