Museum of the American Revolution: Dichotomy of a Fledgling Nation

Exterior of the Museum of the American Revolution. (Museum of the American Revolution)

Walking into the Museum of the American Revolution’s spacious rotunda, museum patrons will be met with polished terrazzo floors and an elegant curling staircase illuminated with the natural light from the George Washington standard flag six-pointed star skylight.

At the start of the Museum experience, an orientation video depicts differing perspectives from founding mother Abigail Adams to Mohawk leader Joseph Brant to free black Continental soldier Lemuel Hayes. The orientation piece, and the Museum as a whole, effectively recognizes the dichotomy of a revolution born from the desire for freedom despite the lack of rights and freedoms for native peoples, women, and slaves. The concluding message is hopeful, however, in communicating that the memory and spirit of the Revolution must be kept alive in America so that her populace continues to fight for freedom and rights for all of her inhabitants.

The most striking takeaway from the Museum of the American Revolution is its representation of all voices and groups involved: women, freemen, slaves, indigenous peoples, and even Loyalists. When taught about the American Revolution in grade school through high school (and even college), we are often told the stiff stories of the founding fathers, of old men in a stuffy room in Philadelphia – but the Museum does well to present the Revolution in a fresh light, stripping away the rosy national narrative we all know and putting in its place the ground level stories of revolution. The museum does not shy away from discussing the integral part women, native peoples, slaves, and freemen had in the Revolution – in fact, they have presented these stories as centerpieces. Even at the exhibit of George Washington’s tent, an introductory video does not sugar-coat the General’s slave ownership, or that the tent passed to the Lee family after his death. In an ironic twist of fate, having fled their home during the Civil War, the Lee family left the care of Washington’s tent to a slave woman named Selina Gray. We owe the stewardship of a piece of Washington’s legacy, of the country’s legacy, to a woman who did not have freedom.

What may surprise museum-goers the most, however, is the exhibit dedicated to the Oneida Nation. Sadly, many people are not taught about indigenous people’s involvement in the Revolution, much less the fact that the Oneida were one of the only tribes to ally with the Continental Army. In this exhibit, statues of famous Oneida such as Chief Skenandoah, Han Yerry, Grasshopper, Powless, and Two Kettles Together discuss joining the Continental Army despite the majority of the Six Nations allying with the British. The statues, created from fiberglass by New York sculpture studio Atta Inc, are clothed in eighteenth century garb and stand before a video screen playing reenactment scenes.

Sheri Beglen, member of the Oneida Nation and coordinator of the Oneida Language Preservation, explained how the Oneida Nation was involved with MoAR since its conception and donated $10 million in 2012. With this exhibit, the contribution and sacrifice of the Oneida Nation is given the respect, recognition, and reverence long due. The very reason this exhibit is needed was exemplified by a story Beglen shared about her grandson. A few years ago, he had written a school report about the Oneida woman Polly Cooper who brought food to the starving soldiers at Valley Forge. Proud to be sharing his heritage with the class, his teacher remarked that it was a great story, and it would be nice if it was true. Beglen’s grandson was understandably devastated that his heritage had been demeaned by his own teacher. But, with Oneida and other native voices at the forefront of the Museum, one hopes such ignorance will decrease. Beglen even hopes to add more to the immersive Oneida exhibit as time goes on.

To further plunge museum-goers into the Revolutionary experience, there are provided several interactive stations with historical documents and inclusive stories. One station allows museum-goers to learn about five true stories of Africans in 1781 Virginia. For example, Andrew (far right in the picture) was a young freeman who fought for the Continental Army. These interactive exhibit pieces allow the patron to hear little known, yet uniquely interesting stories of the Revolution.

Overall, the Museum of the American Revolution strikes a balance between the stories we all know, and those we may not. It recognizes the nation’s past and present flaws, and simultaneously celebrates the diversity of America throughout the ages. MoAR excels in representing people otherwise disenfranchised during the Revolution, effectively illustrating the dichotomy of a fledgling nation fighting for freedom for some while at the same time actively oppressing others.

Fast Facts:

https://www.amrevmuseum.org

Address:

101 S. 3rd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106

 

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Museum of the American Revolution: Dichotomy of a Fledgling Nation

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4 Comments

  • Looking forward to visiting. The challenge will be incorporating the rich, new scholarship but not in a way that swamps the bigger picture, leaving us with just a myriad of stories outside of a framework.

  • I visited on April 17th as a founding member. Overall it was an excellent experience. The staff, I don’t know whether they were paid or volunteer, were very friendly and eager to interact. They had one man portraying George Washington, and you could engage him as either a reenactor who knew only the world of his time or as someone who realized he was a contemporary representative of Washington. I began to ask him a question when another visitor came up and interrupted. Feeling that was rude but not about to say anything, I just moved on to the next room. As soon as he could he came and found me and we spoke for about 10 minutes. They have some mannequins to illustrate particular incidents in the war which were stunningly lifelike. The museum provided an excellent overview of the Revolutionary War, from 1st stirrings to the Constitution. However, it as an overview and may prove somewhat frustrating to enthusiasts. There was a lot more narrative and explanation than artifacts. The half privateer ship was a little cheesy and best suited for small children. It was definitely a “Whig” interpretation of history but nothing really wrong with that. I would have liked to see more about the escapement at Morristown (not a word) and the Battle at Monmouth (only a sentence) but still an outstanding introduction and overview in the perfect location. I hope Americans who know little about their history and foreign tourists seeking a better understanding of this country’s history will visit. Personally, I do plan to return and hope that as the museum grows it will be able to offer greater depth and details – as well as more artifacts.

  • A couple of thoughts: I have never considered the heroes that gathered in Philadelphia as “old men in a stuffy room”.
    I believe they deserve much more respect than that.
    And as far as why many people don’t know about the Oneida’s contribution, you need to be informed as to how history classes are scheduled. Currently the NYC public schools devote very little time to history.
    My students get social studies 2x/week.
    How does a teacher cover such an intricate
    topic in 3 weeks? Most students don’t even learn the major forefathers, never mind the Oneida. Let’s make sure we understand that, in most cases, it is a time issue. No group is being ignored or “demoted”.

    • I agree with Yael about the “old men in a stuffy room” comment.
      It seems too many feel they must denigrate one group to build up another. It really doesn’t have to be that way. More than one group can be praised at the same time.
      And, to be honest, I thank God those men did what they did, whether in a stuffy room or not. As for their age…who cares?
      On the plus side, I’m glad to hear that the museum “does not shy away from discussing the integral part women, native peoples, slaves, and freemen had in the Revolution.” It’s good that we will be able to hear from the varying people of the time who also made such a difference in the fight for independence.
      But please don’t do it at the expense of others who also played key roles.

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