In Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution, a tableau of five life-size figures depicts a brawl between a diverse group of men who have come to Boston in the winter of 1775-76 to join the rebellion against the British government.
In their midst stands the future president, George Washington, who has shed his characteristic reserve in an effort to break up the melee between New Englanders and Virginians and, by extension, to unify the fractious participants in the budding revolt.
It’s a telling glimpse of the difficult process by which the United States became an independent nation, and of the museum’s determination to show the struggles, doubts and halting progress of the Revolution, rather than presenting an idealized account of unity and purpose.
The museum, opening this week, tells the story by asking questions about the origins, process and outcome of the Revolution, using thousands of historic artifacts, digital recreations of historic events, and replicas of important scenes and objects from the period.
“We’re trying to take a page from science museums, which are better than history museums generally about asking questions of visitors and being more interested in raising questions than providing answers,” said R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president for collections, exhibitions and programming. “Usually with a history museum, it’s more like history as found facts. This is more like: ‘Dinosaurs: Are they like birds or reptiles? Let’s look at the evidence.'”
The evidence in the new museum includes Washington’s headquarters tent where the general lived and worked from mid-1778 until 1783. The linen structure, measuring about 23 feet long by 14 feet wide, is unveiled to visitors in a climate-controlled case at the end of a 12-minute multimedia presentation on his leadership of the Revolution.
“This was literally the place where he would retire to read and write dispatches, and no one would disturb him until he came to the door,” Stephenson said, noting that Washington played a critical role in holding the cause together while living in the tent.
The tent is on display to the public for the first time since the mid-1990s, when it entered storage after being owned by the Valley Forge Historical Society, the source of many items in the museum’s collection.
The exhibition also includes a pair of Washington’s silver camp cups, the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence and a pair of 18th-century slave shackles that are small enough to fit a child.
At the start of the exhibition, visitors are presented with a digital recreation of citizens and soldiers in New York using ropes to pull down a statue of King George III, which was then melted down and turned into armaments with which to fight the British.
After passing through a section titled “How Did the Revolution Survive Its Darkest Hours?” visitors are confronted by another likeness of the king, this time an actual statue, accompanied by a common man holding a coil of rope, as if inviting visitors to join the Revolution by helping to topple the king.
The museum — costing $150 million, mostly from private donations — hopes to show that such tumult was more characteristic of the Revolution than the orderly drafting of the Declaration of Independence depicted by painter John Trumbull in 1819, Stephenson said.
“What do you replace monarchy with when the king is the glue that holds society together?” he asked. “That’s a messy process. It’s not John Trumbull’s version of the Revolution that’s really the truth.”
Philadelphia is the right place to tell the story of the Revolution, Stephenson said, because of its importance in that period and because of its many historic sites, such as Independence Hall a few blocks away, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted.
“This was the headquarters of the Revolution, and it is still the place where millions of people come every year to connect with the founding era,” he said.
— — —
The Museum of the American Revolution, 101 S. Third St., Philadelphia, will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting April 19. Hours will be extended from Memorial Day to Labor Day.