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Archives of Independence

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Archives of Independence

Despite some puzzling choices, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution presents a compelling picture of our national origins. July 3, 2017
Politics and law
Arts and Culture

Reactions to Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution run the gamut from rejection of its traditionalist form to praise for its revisionist content. Neither characterization is quite fair, in a museum whose architecture is stately, if a bit hollow, and whose contents are impressive, if frequently irritating. In architecture, as in politics, it’s often simpler to label something “conservative” to indicate your displeasure than to bother explaining what you mean. Contemporary work in classical idioms can be dull and derivative, yet it reliably receives more condemnation than dull or derivative work in modern modes.

The Museum of the American Revolution is traditional in form, with elements deriving from different eras. Its strongest resemblance is not to the numerous Georgian structures nearby or to the Greek Revival First Bank of the United States across the street but to the 1920s customs house structure it adjoins—an art deco tower with some Georgian accents. Its use of brick interrupted by stone-string courses and tympana and window and door arches is classically Georgian. And yet its upper floors seem to leap forward in history, forsaking a gable roof for flat angularity. Something of a stylistic mishmash, the building is nonetheless stately and of agreeable scale, respectful of its prominent corner setting and of pedestrian life around it, with a comfortable plaza and bas-reliefs enlivening the street level at any hour.

Inside, things become more puzzling. The entrance hall is elegant and spacious, yet verges on vacancy. This hall leads to a spiral stair, a theater holding the museum’s orientation video, a gift shop, and another expansive room reminiscent of a hotel ballroom. The third floor is also a large event space. This leaves essentially all exhibits for the second floor. The building is, like Gouverneur Morris, heavy around the midsection and otherwise trim. 

As an institution dedicated to maximizing revenue while delivering doses of diversity, the museum resembles a modern university. There’s nothing objectionable about its frequently proclaimed intent to convey a more inclusive story of the American Revolution. A new attention to these elements is often welcome. And yet the drumbeat of identity politics is sometimes so insistent as to drown out the narrative of the conflict—and sometimes, these interpolations are completely out of context. Why, for example, are we reading the thoughts of a Korean War veteran on one of the walls?

Certainly, independence proved a hollow promise for slaves and Native Americans. Native Americans had ample reason to remain Loyalists. Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, for example, is one of the most compelling figures of the conflict—yet he is mentioned on at least five occasions, and not always in sensible ways. Slavery, too, while a central subject, pops up in odd places, including in the introduction to a video about George Washington’s field tent.

There are other tedious interruptions: a segment on the confiscation of Loyalist property seeks to tie them to laws forbidding the female inheritance of property—without presenting one example, say, of a female patriot who lost her property due to a Loyalist husband. While the curation dodges Charles Beard-like themes of economic determinism—in one exhibit demonstrating the sympathy of workers for the revolution against English rule—a hammer and sickle from the period are crossed to resemble the emblem of the Soviet Communist Party. This heavy-handed and anachronistic point scans as juvenile rather than meaningful.

The principal irritation is not this content but the museum’s middle-schoolish curatorial tone. “Revolutionary Americans portrayed Hessians as cruel and inhuman,” visitors are told in one exhibit. “But most of the German soldiers were a lot like the Americans.” Wall text for the British invasion of New York reads: it was shock and awe.

These editorial intrusions don’t outweigh a largely superb collection, however. Many of the exhibits are excellent, their progression well-sequenced, with steadily alternating display cases, figurines, a reconstruction of a small privateer, replica liberty tree, videos, and interactive elements, including an immersive depiction of the Battle of Brandywine. The collection of objects, from firebacks to fusils, sabres to spontoons, is highly impressive. Exhibits on colonial flags and the evolution of the Great Seal of the United States, among others, are detailed and informative. Several battles and campaigns are deftly explained. The enormity of the choice whether to rebel or stay loyal is dramatized by portraits of British generals Edward Vernon and James Wolfe as heroes of the colonial era and a prewar segment on George Washington’s status as a British hero.

The best is saved for last, in the exhibit of Washington’s tent from Valley Forge. Revealed only briefly to lessen its exposure to light, the tent makes a genuinely ethereal coda. Owned for some time by Mary Custis Lee and then purchased in 1909 by Episcopal Reverend Herbert Burk, whose collection provides most of the museum’s materials, the tent is a grand American tale in its own right.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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