‘We want to convey a sense of how people got through those challenging times that inspire some of our greatest moments as a nation’
In April 2014 the Museum of the American Revolution started demolition and site preparation for its permanent building, slated to open in 2016 just blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pa. Historians have worked for more than a century to build the museum’s collection of Revolutionary War–era artifacts and to find an appropriate location to house and interpret them. Military History recently spoke with R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s director of collections and interpretation, about the $150 million building project and the decades-long effort to create a national museum dedicated to the history of the American Revolution.
Describe the origins of the museum.
The core of our collection and institutional ancestry is the old Valley Forge Historical Society, founded by the Rev. W. Herbert Burk. He had a vision to build something akin to the national cathedral [Washington Memorial Chapel] at Valley Forge to commemorate George Washington and the Valley Forge encampment.
For some 80 years after Burk’s first acquisition in 1909 the collection gradually grew. In the 1990s there was an effort to finally build a museum at Valley Forge, but for various reasons in the early 2000s the decision was made to move the project to Philadelphia through a land exchange with the National Park Service. The exchange was concluded in 2010, and we’ve been working on fundraising and an architectural design.
What did the land exchange entail?
There’s a site at 3rd and Chestnut in Philadelphia—just under an acre at Independence National Historical Park’s old visitor center—that was conveyed to our organization for 78 acres now incorporated into the Valley Forge National Historical Park. It was a wonderful testament to the NPS and a great win-win since they expanded the preserved land at Valley Forge.
What are the museum’s mission and focus?
We really want to reinvigorate peoples’ connection and ownership of the American Revolution. Our institutional mission is to inspire learning about the history of the revolution, particularly the significance of the founding ideals of the Declaration of Independence. We want to convey a sense of how people got through those challenging times that inspire some of our greatest moments as a nation.
Our storyline starts around 1760— the latter part of the French and Indian War and the coronation of King George III. At this time George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the diverse cast of characters were patriotic members of the British empire. We want to bring visitors through the process of how these patriotic Britons so quickly became revolutionaries, to show them the radical nature of the revolution, how it carried through the war years and what the lasting legacy of the American Revolution is.
How inclusive is the collection?
The Rev. Burk’s first major acquisition was Washington’s marquee [field tent] in 1909, purchased from Martha Washington’s descendants. Burk’s vision was much broader than just the revolution; he collected things from the Civil War, the Philippine Insurrection and World War I. After Burk’s death in 1933 the society focused on narrowing the collection to the revolution. We have items owned by Washington, Abigail Adams, Martha Washington—key iconic items like clothing, personal items, letters and five of Patrick Henry’s law books. In the late 1950s, anticipating the bicentennial, the focus turned to building up a historic arms collection with engraved powder horns, edged weapons, muskets and rifles. We have about 3,000 objects.
What are some highlights?
We have an interactive timeline with a number of highlights. A personal favorite is a very rare engraved powder horn made by William Waller, a Virginia rifleman from what’s now Shepherdstown, W.Va. Revolution-period items from the South are particularly difficult to find—a little dispute in the 1860s resulted in loss of a lot of material. Also, the climate doesn’t favor the survival of organic materials. The powder horn is a great personal object, representing a participant in the war who usually doesn’t have a voice; any opportunity we have to highlight the experience of common soldiers is really tremendous.
What is the significance of Washington’s marquee?
The oval-shaped tent served as Washington’s command center during the war. It’s clear Washington’s practice was to have this tent set up nearby. It was a place where he’d go when he didn’t want to be disturbed.
It is perhaps the largest and most significant surviving artifact from the American Revolution. In our minds it is absolutely on a par with the Star-Spangled Banner as a national treasure. You basically have to go to Napoléon for the next surviving tent even close to this vintage.
It has a larger political significance as well. Washington was consciously trying to create a model of republican generalship. Unlike most leaders during this period, he remained in the field with his army through the entire war. He had a moral force with his soldiers because he had been there, through the battles and in the snow, the rain and the heat. We feel that the marquee, in an immediate way, speaks to Washington’s great leadership.
Where is the collection now?
It’s scattered in several locations throughout the Philadelphia suburbs. We have an active loan program, too. There are about 40 items on display at Mount Vernon’s education center, and we’ve loaned dozens of items to the National Constitution Center, Colonial Williamsburg and others. We also try to accommodate, on a very limited basis, scholars interested in studying a particular object.
What is the status of the building project?
As of April 2014 the construction fence is up and demolition of the existing building has started. We’re anticipating a proper groundbreaking for the 180,000-square-foot museum in late summer or early fall 2014, allowing us to open in early winter 2016.
How do you envision the museum visitor’s experience?
The core exhibition space will be roughly 16,000 square feet, wrapping around a two-story court. Visitors will pass through about 16 galleries, beginning with the moment the Declaration of Independence was read on July 9, 1776, in New York. We’ll also have an indoor recreation of the Liberty Tree in Boston and a privateer ship. Our Field of Battle installation will display the best examples of weaponry used by each side, and a rich multimedia experience will relate the major actions between the Stamp Act and the outbreak of the war.
Next, visitors will be placed in a 20-person platoon and sent into an enclosed circular theater, putting them on the frontline of the Sept. 11, 1777, Battle of Brandywine. It will be a very dramatic 4-D experience with sounds, smells and smoke.
How will the museum enhance the appeal of historic Philadelphia?
People are focused on the founding history when they visit Independence Hall and the surrounding area. The piece missing is a place that explains the revolution. There’s a growing feeling in this city that the addition of the Museum of the American Revolution will place Philadelphia in a position to deliver on being the premier heritage destination related to the founding of the country. It will complete the rest of the park area. We’re working very closely with what we call “mall partners” to make sure there is a self-supporting, seamless, integrated visitor experience.
What do you anticipate from the opening?
For me it’s being there when the doors open and seeing the response of our visitors, particularly young ones. What gets me up in the morning is seeing kids develop a sense of empathy for people in the past and seeing their connection to this great nation of ours, learning the legacy that belongs to them.