Two new museums devoted to telling the story of the American Revolution opened within a month of each other in Spring 2017. What are the odds? Philadelphia and Yorktown, Virginia both seemed like obvious places for such a museum. The museums are about a five-and-a-half-hour drive from each other. It took me a while, but I finally managed to visit both of them. This isn’t a review, but some observations about them. Bottom line: they are both worth visiting.
Both museums have embraced social and cultural history and seek to tell the stories of previously unheard voices – women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Both include local flavor to a national story. In Philadelphia it’ s the Battle of Brandywine, in Virginia, it’s the siege of Yorktown. And both include a hall of photographs of the revolutionary generation in their older years – a powerful way to personalize a story that pre-dates the invention of photography.
Where the Philly museum sits blocks from Independence Hall, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown sits at the edge of the Yorktown battlefield where in October, 1781, British forces were trapped and surrendered, essentially bringing an end to the War. The museum opened April 1, 2017.
Similar to the Philadelphia museum, settings with life-sized figures add to a dramatic effect and media sprinkled throughout offer video in creative ways. The film “Liberty Fever,” an orientation film of sorts at the entrance utilizes a creative approach, set in 1830 or 1840, with a bit of whimsy, to tell a story with big themes. The Siege Theater features experiential theater to take you to the Yorktown battlefield. With dazzling lights, deafening cannon, shaking seats, blowing wind and the smoke of battle, this 4-D effect theater tries to engage the senses. It works pretty well.
Along the way are impressive objects, a stunning huge portrait of King George III, a reproduction cannon, and a rare broadside of the Declaration of Independence. Like the Philadelphia museum, almost 500 objects fill the space.
The exhibition pays special homage to Virginia’s native sons such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. But other voices certainly enter the story, from women to enslaved people who must make tough decisions about whether or not to run to the British.
The exhibit labels offer many stories and include multiple voices, however they are long and it often seemed like the curator was writing a book instead of exhibition text. I wish the designers had presented the text in smaller chunks and incorporated questions to provoke thought.
Yorktown includes something the Philadelphia museum can only accomplish with its reproduction Privateer hands-on area: a large outside hands-on area that includes a Revolution-era farmsite, a Continental Army encampment, and best of all, an artillery amphitheater where people of all ages can fire a cannon or rifle while an audience watches. Ever wonder how many men it took to fire a cannon, how far the recoil moved the cannon, or how they managed not to go deaf? I really enjoyed exploring the different tents from the officer’s tent to the medical tent. The kitchen area was not at all what I expected.
Like Philadelphia, Yorktown includes a special exhibition gallery. During my visit it featured a display about artillery, Blast from the Past. It goes in-depth about the physics of the large guns, but uses creative approaches, such as a whimsical film, to provide explanations.
Of course the museum is no substitution for a visit to the actual preserved battlefield a few miles away. But in order to get a solid context, the museum is well worth a visit. Even better, add a visit to Jamestown and Williamsburg the other sides of Virgnia’s Historic Triangle.