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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Thursday, June 06, 2019

Joanne Freeman on “Hamilton: The Exhibition”

The Yale News recently interviewed Prof. Joanne Freeman about her work on Alexander Hamilton. The article explains:
For a long time Freeman, professor of history and of American studies, was the only person she knew of who had much of an interest in Hamilton. “I spent many decades lecturing about Hamilton and essentially saying, ‘I know you’ve never heard of this person but you should, because he actually played an important role in the founding of our country,’” says Freeman.

“Now, with everyone adoring Hamilton due to the play, I spend a lot of time saying: ‘You know, he’s not as great as you think he is. He was a flawed figure with problematic politics.’ In my work, I want to show Hamilton in all of his complexity.”
Of course, Freeman shares some of the blame, or credit, for Hamilton’s newfound heroic status. She was one of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sources for the Hamilton musical. She’s a more formal advisor for “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” a multimedia display in Chicago that’s popped up in conjunction with the performances of the musical there.

The exhibit comes from the same team that created the show, and Freeman says one of their goals was to fill in some holes—and correct some historical misconceptions—that the play leaves its excited audiences with. In the interview, Freeman says:
One major lapse in the show concerns the institution of slavery. It isn’t discussed for more than a line or two in “Hamilton” — yet the United States and the early modern world were grounded on the institution of slavery, so that had to be in the foreground of the exhibition. When you enter the first room of the exhibition (after the introductory film), you see shackles; the institution of slavery is the first thing you confront. It was at the center of Hamilton’s world.

The exhibit adds a lot of context along those lines — concerning slavery and any number of other topics: the role of women, the contributions of non-elite folk, and more. There are also more specific corrections that are almost like Easter eggs in the exhibit, such as a plaque that explains that [Thomas] Jefferson didn’t win the election of 1800 “in a landslide,” as the play suggests, or another one that notes (in a more comical vein) that Martha Washington did not name her feral tomcat Hamilton.
(I discussed that feline myth back here.)
Some topics were difficult to figure out how to put into physical form. One of them was Hamilton’s financial plan, which – to be honest — doesn’t sound inherently interesting to most people. We spent quite a long time trying to figure out how to make it compelling to the average person walking through the exhibit.

At one point, I said: ‘Here’s the thing. The entire government was an experiment, no one knew if it was going to function, and certainly no one knew if Hamilton’s financial plan was going to work. His plan proposed some radical ideas that a lot of people disagreed with, so there was a lot of uncertainty.’

And then there was a pause – and then David Korins [set designer for “Hamilton” the play] said, “What if when you enter the financial plan section, the floor is uneven so people feel a bit thrown off?” A fascinating suggestion — something that never would have occurred to me in a thousand years; making a historical concept concrete through set design. . . .

The day that the exhibition opened to the public, I watched people walk through the part of the exhibit that deals with Hamilton’s financial plan and sure enough when people crossed over into that room they immediately paused, and looked down at the floor.
Freeman is also a cohost of the Backstory podcast and author most recently of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. The portrait of her above is by Justin Greenwood, from his and Jonathan Hennessey’s Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father.

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