By Anna Leigh Todd
In 1818, John Adams reflected on the founding of the nation, asking, “But what do We mean by the American Revolution? Do We mean the American War?” His response signaled otherwise: “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” According to Adams, the people put aside their natural allegiance to Britain once it was clear that their liberties were under attack. “This radical Change in the Principles, Opinions Sentiments and Affection of the People,” affirmed Adams, “was the real American Revolution.”
Today, notions of liberty and equality are enduring reminders of the American Revolution in the collective consciousness of Americans. Yet these ideals have never been without limits and contradictions. At Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution, this disconnect between principles and experience lies at the heart of its exhibits, which take seriously both the power of ideas and the ways in which they fall short. Dedicated to telling the most complete version of the revolution’s history, the museum offers both popular and lesser-known perspectives on a historical moment that many Americans still find deeply resonant. The museum’s engaging and interactive exhibits challenge visitor assumptions at every turn, perhaps leading some to leave with an altered view of the events and the significance of the nation’s founding. For, as the brochure promises to visitors: “You don’t know the half of it.”
Nestled in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood just a few blocks away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the museum greets visitors with its dual commitment to revolution as both political and military event—five revolutionary-era cannons guard its doors while the words of the Declaration of Independence adorn its entryway. Guests begin their experience with a film simply titled Revolution, which condenses with remarkable skill the complexities of British imperial policies, clashing colonial loyalties (including the roles of Native Americans), the hypocrisy of enslavement, and the revolution’s stakes, both local and global. With this comprehensive introduction fresh on their minds, visitors make their way through the four main galleries that trace these themes. The galleries, organized chronologically as well as (loosely) thematically, are named Road to Independence (1760–75), The Darkest Hour (1776–78), A Revolutionary War (1778–83), and A New Nation (1783–present).
All four galleries take seriously the depth, if not the breadth, of revolutionary ideals, juxtaposing lofty proclamations of inalienable rights with tales of lives on the periphery. Passing through a gilded depiction of British imperial pride, patrons are suddenly confronted with colonial rebellion embodied by a dazzling, lantern-lit recreation of the Boston Liberty Tree. Careful dissections of print propaganda, interactive shop cabinets, touchable reproductions of liberty caps, and the smell of Boston Harbor tea engage both children and adults alike, while a signed first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry serves as a powerful reminder of the limits of revolutionary ideology.
After helping its guests explore the nuances of revolutionary warfare with the aid of enthusiastic museum guides, animated maps, and a thrilling digital reenactment of the Battle of Brandywine, the museum encourages them to spend the remainder of their time considering how revolutionary the revolution actually was and the significance of its legacy. The final exhibit addresses the enduring pursuit of liberty for those who fell outside of the founders’ vision, pointing to present-day protests for civil and other rights as proof of the longevity of revolutionary ideals. The gallery turns the mirror (literally) to the visitor as reflective of all that has come before.
The museum’s dedication to depicting stories typically excluded from familiar narratives of the revolution is both necessary and welcome. The perspectives of Native Americans, women, loyalists, and the enslaved are found throughout, with careful attention to capturing the actual words and voices of these people. In The Darkest Hour gallery, a panoramic video and tableau figures recreate the decision-making process through which the Oneida Indian Nation came to side with the United States. Hearing the leaders carefully weigh each side as the figures light up is a powerful experience that highlights the active involvement of Native American communities. Yet the exhibit’s overall effect could have been enhanced by providing more context for the nuances of the Oneida alliance and the sources from which their words were drawn.
One of the most powerful exhibits is the collection of five interactive stories of free and enslaved African Americans grappling with the lingering war in Virginia in 1781. The exhibit pieces together historical speculation and careful readings of runaway slave advertisements, court records, pension applications, and other mediated sources to tell the diverse stories of these men and women, drawing visitors in by inviting them to make their own choices along the way. Significantly, in this exhibit, the final component of each story alerts visitors to archival silences and the difficulties historians and museum educators face when constructing them. Yet, despite the enormous merit of this exhibit, the aesthetically pleasing yet leisurely storybook medium seems to discourage prolonged engagement.
If the museum overall tends toward the celebratory, it does not do so without pause, presenting accomplishments alongside enduring challenges. In fact, proceeding through the exhibits and the galleries, one notices a subtle but crucial shift in the museum’s message from revolutionary ideas to the impact of the revolution itself, leaving patrons pondering the conflicted legacy of the nation’s founding, its place in historical memory, and its lingering effects in the modern era. For this reason, the special Washington’s Headquarters Tent feature is an appropriate conclusion as both a striking example of material history and an intriguing story of 19th-century memorialization. Ultimately, the museum’s American Revolution is complex, contingent, and full of contradictions—as close as a 21st-century visitor can get to imagining the full scope of the founding event in our nation’s history.
Anna Leigh Todd is a doctoral student and Benjamin Franklin Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on early American gender, sexuality, and print culture.
*All photos were taken by the author*