This month, we asked our contributors:
If you could curate a museum exhibit about any aspect of the American Revolution and founding era, what would your subject be?
Louis Arthur Norton
I would curate an exhibition on the maritime history of the American Revolution, the contributions of the Continental Navy, the several state navies and the role of the privateer fleet and their impact on the war’s outcome.
I would love to create an exhibit from the perspective of children: the war’s impact on civilian homes, education during the founding era, and how the war would shape their perspectives, etc.
I’d go with “fake news” and present as much conflicting information as possible, to show people how that information can be taken in so many extremely different directions—emphasizing to look at why the data is presented the way it was. Facts, like statistics, can “prove” pretty much whatever you want them to.
“Voices of the Past,” based on the diaries, letters and journals of the French soldiers of the American Revolution!
The Battle of Yorktown, as it was the fight that effectively ended British aggression within the American colonies. Luckily it is already a National Park and the site of the fabulous American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
The least-well-understood aspect of the war is its funding. Who paid for the Revolutionary War, and how, too often takes a back seat to action-oriented exhibits, but the funding was a critical factor in being able to sustain the war. There is much more to it than “not worth a Continental.” George III hoped to win the war by forcing the rebels economically to their knees. Preventing that from happening were America’s funding sources, including France, taxes paid by ordinary Americans, ingenious schemes by state governments, lotteries, and some daring stratagems by wealthy American individuals. No museum that I know of has done this subject justice. There is plenty of documentation for it, though.
One of the most beautiful books I ever saw pass through auction was “The Uniform of the Several Regiments of Foot in his Majesty’s Service.” Published in London in 1771, the volume depicts seventy accurate uniforms of British foot regiments, each one engraved and hand coloured. The text includes the nickname of the regiment and its leading officer. Many of these regiments would be transferred to, or were already stationed in, America. Only two copies are known to have survived.
The exhibit I’d like to see—I wouldn’t feel remotely capable of curating it myself—would concentrate on the private commercial shipping of the era, the riverine, intracoastal, and transoceanic businesses that were the lifeblood of the North American economy. Ships, sailors, goods, navigation, traffic patterns, business practices: all worthwhile subjects far more critical to everyday life than military vessels and conflicts.
Randy A. Purvis
Partisan warfare in the South. It is a subject that deserves recognition. Against overwhelming odds, irregular Patriot warriors and their notable leaders such as Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter and many lesser-known commanders continued to wage war against the British following the devastating defeats at Charleston and Camden. Their courage, skill, and commitment to the cause of liberty provided a sense of hope during the darkest days of the war and provided a significant contribution to the final American victory.
Lars D. H. Hedbor
I would love to curate an exhibit highlighting the contributions of the Spanish, French, Native American, and many other people who came to the assistance of the cause of American independence. Artifacts representing their material aid, demonstrating how their cultures differed from and converged with that of the Americans, and what their legacies have been since independence was won would all be fascinating to assemble and consider. A completely different exhibit that would appeal to my personal interests would be one focusing on the material culture of ordinary people across the different colonies.
The seizure of John Hancock’s sloop, the Liberty.
I would do an exhibit on the 1777 Delaware River war. I feel it is an underappreciated aspect of the war and the Philadelphia campaign. I grew up a mile from Fort Mercer and have always been interested in coastal defenses as a result. While many have heard of Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer, many do not know about Billingsport and the hidden park at its location on the New Jersey side of the river. Numerous other land batteries dotted the river on both banks during the fighting and the complex naval operations require deeper study. Most museums mention Brandywine and Germantown, but few if any dive into this complex and important fighting of the campaign.
I would curate an exhibition regarding how Samuel Adams, over the course of some ten years, led and coordinated the organizational structure of the Sons of Liberty in Boston and the other major colonial cities. His leadership and stamina developed a “united front” organization which nourished the popular base for the Revolution.
Nancy Bradeen Spannaus
I would shape an exhibit on how the drive for a society based on economic and scientific progress inspired many Founding Fathers to demand independence. Looking at the imperial prohibitions against manufacturing, Benjamin Franklin’s writings in favor of a paper currency and population growth, and much else over the 150 years leading into the revolutionary break with the mother country.
I would like to curate an exhibit of diaries and manuscripts about the American War of Independence supplemented by artifacts. I would focus particularly on the French involvement which was crucial to the victory and which most people ignore, except for the siege of Yorktown. There are many documents that have never been published—not even in French—and some have fascinating accounts. One of them, the journal of the Comte de Lauberdière, Rochambeau’s nephew and aide-de-camp will be published in May under the title The Road to Yorktown.
Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. For three years, I drove through the battlefield going to and from work. I never shook the feeling I had as a kid that something extremely important happened there that in some way affected me long after. For five more years, we lived within five miles of the battlefield. Sure, I know now it wasn’t the end of the Revolution, etc.; but to me as a curator of this exhibit, I would want others to understand the importance of what happened near the mouth of the York River in Virginia in the fall of 1781.
I would love to see an exhibit dedicated to the women who physically fought in the Revolution, whether they were disguised as men or not: Deborah Sampson, Anna Maria Lane, Mary Ludwig Hays, Margaret Corbin, Sally St. Clair, Tyonajanegen (also known as Two Kettles Together,) and the countless others never discovered and lost to history.
William H. J. Manthorpe
Jacob Jones, Naval Hero of 1812. In fact I am having the pleasure of creating such an exhibit. In Lewes, Delaware I am helping the Lewes Historical Society curate a museum dedicated to Jones. It is in the oldest house in Delaware (1665), on the Historic Register and part of the First State National Park. Jacob lived in the house as a boy (ages six through sixteen, 1774-1785) during the Revolution and experienced the sounds and sights of Revolutionary naval battles. While the museum will cover his entire naval career, the Revolutionary War people and events of his boyhood will be the introduction.
I would like to curate a newspaper exhibit for a museum dedicated to the American Revolution. Newspapers are time machines to see what literate people digested to inform themselves about momentous events of the day. They also provide insights into political bias, and aspects of everyday life including business, real estate, mercantile trades, and slavery among many others. Viewing the art, letterheads, and printing style make the colonial era come to life. Fortunately, in the digital age, many non-profit organizations and websites like Newspapers.com provide convenient opportunities to view them from a laptop or smartphone.
I would curate an exhibit on the food and drink of the era. There were many great dishes from that time, and my visitors would learn the varieties of foods the people ate, from the well-off colonials to the hired hands and the not-so-affluent. The guests would be surprised to learn that the upper class looked down upon lobsters, as they were over-abundant and common, and usually fed to prisoners, apprentices, and children. My exhibit would also feature the dishes known as slumps and grunts, unsavory in name but delicious as fruit dumpling desserts. Of course, I would have the museum cafeteria coordinate specials of the day featuring some of the food and drink featured in the exhibit. I might even procure a liquor license for the museum so the grown-ups could enjoy some of the adult beverages from that time period. If not, they could just drink tea.
William M. Welsch
It would be Washington’s Lieutenants: The generals of the Continental Army. All of the seventy-seven subordinate generals commissioned by Congress. Washington makes seventy-eight. Plus perhaps the thirty-four brevet generals.
I would like to curate a museum exhibit about the Articles of Confederation. It gets passed over in many museum exhibits chronicling the major events and documents of the American Revolutionary period. At the Smithsonian Museum of American History, for example, an exhibit on American democracy showcased artifacts, side by side, of the Declaration of Independence (e.g., the desk Jefferson used to draft the document) and the Constitution of 1787, leaving the impression that we leaped directly from Independence to the Constitution. The failure of America’s first constitution is a critical chapter in our Revolutionary story.
Robert S. Davis
It would be on surgeons. It is fascinating to me how many men they saved from such terrible wounds.
The participation of African Americans in the war on both the American and British sides.
I’d love an exhibit that attempted to accurately recreate what everyone really looked like in person, based on their life masks, death masks, portraits, and contemporary descriptions.
I’d love to see an exhibit on camp hygiene among the Continental Army. It’s fascinating to read how often General Washington had to admonish the officers to make sure they kept their men clean. Apparently, the soldiers needed to be told, again and again, to site latrines correctly—and to actually use them rather than “easing” themselves wherever they felt like it. The exhibit would certainly bring a memorable, um, pungency to learning about the birth of American freedom.
Mark R. Anderson
I think an exhibit “Water Transportation in the North” would be fantastic and highly enlightening—focusing on bateaux and canoes. Ideally it would have at least one full-scale physical example of each. Supporting material and displays could explain construction and materials, propulsion, navigability, the portage process, and show physical examples of cargo and troop-carrying loadouts, and even armed bateau with swivel guns/small cannon. A very illuminating display piece would be comparative maps that depict accessibility across the region on waterways, by canoe or bateau with short portages vs. the limited wagon or cart transportation options on historical road-trail networks.
Words and phrases: many of the words eighteenth-century people used and how they strung them together are often fascinating to people today. For example, “rascal” today is a mischievous person, often a child. In the eighteenth century, however, it served as one of the worst things you could call someone. Then, there are the old stand-bys: “Macaroni,” “lock, stock, and barrel,” or “going off half-cocked.” And, there are scores of much more obscure phrases like “as unintelligible as the drawings on the walls of Bedlam.” Such a display would be both interesting and educational for many.
Matthew M. Montelione
I would certainly curate an exhibit focusing on New York Loyalists, most notably players living on Long Island and York Island under British occupation. The exhibit would highlight their actions, hopes, and fears throughout the Revolution: their oftentimes shaky, complicated relationship with the British military, their being hunted by Patriots and other lawless ruffians, amongst other specifics. Ultimately, my exhibit would shed light on the contingencies of circumstance affecting Loyalists during the conflict and postwar.
I would curate a museum exhibit about the African American women who were at the Valley Forge Encampment. These women have long been overlooked. One woman, Hannah Till, who was George Washington’s cook, even gave birth to a child at Valley Forge, just one of the women who did so. Another legendary woman is Margaret Thompson, who was Washington’s laundress and the wife of Washington’s trusted enslaved valet, William “Billy” Lee, who was by his side throughout the war. Other African American women were at Valley Forge as camp women.
My museum exhibit would focus on theater. I would like to present plays that were used as propaganda by both the British and the Americans during the Revolution. George Washington was a huge fan of the play Cato by Joseph Addison, and Gen. John Burgoyne was a famous playwright. Putting on the play would be a great exhibit by itself. I would also like to include exhibits about the theaters of the time, including the sets, costumes, actors, etc.
America’s War for Independence completely restructured relations among Native American nations all along the frontier, changing political, cultural, and social structures in unanticipated ways. It fractured old power structures among various Indian tribes, provoked greater conflict between whites and Native Americans all along the Appalachian mountain range (and beyond), sparked accelerated migration, and eventually promoted the emergence of new Indian coalitions in the west. Those changes often get overlooked and demand more attention to enrich our understanding of the country’s founding era.
George F. Reasor
The exhibit I would like to curate would concern the German auxiliary troops, commonly referred to as the Hessians. This exhibit would explain who these troops were, the different places in Germany they came from, and why they were partnered with the British. I would also show the campaigns the soldiers fought in and the impact their service in the war had on them. This is a very misunderstood subject and hopefully such an exhibit would correct the many incorrect perceptions of their service.
David D. Kindy
The Question of Slavery. I recently visited the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe in Virginia and learned all had misgivings about the institution of slavery. If this was such a divisive issue, why didn’t the founding fathers do more to address it? What were their misgivings? Why didn’t they speak out against it? And, the big question: why didn’t they free all their slaves during their lifetimes? I would love to curate a museum exhibit examining their thoughts about slavery and compare them with their actions on tackling this momentous matter that still scars the country today.
Joseph E. Wróblewski
If I could curate a museum exhibit on the American Revolution it would center on the “Ten Crucial Days”—December 25, 1776—January 3, 1777. The events and actions that occurred over that time period, at the nadir of the fight for independence, gave the Patriots the hope that their cause was not lost. The courage and initiative it took to plan and execute these operations needs to explained and documented.
New York City and State have some fine museums and period homes holding items from the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Early Republic Eras, but the Empire State’s overall place in the story seems somehow untold. That in part is because New Yorkers were slow to the heritage tourism game a century ago during the Revolutionary War sesquicentennial. I would love to curate an exhibit emphasizing the importance of New York City’s port—and the merchants and seamen who worked its ships, docks and counting houses—in the period. I would dedicate much space to the international aspect of the story and show how even 250 years ago New York was a bustling, polyglot place.
Nancy K. Loane
I would like to curate an exhibit for Valley Forge National Historical Park emphasizing the diversity of the twenty-five or so people who worked and lived together at Washington’s headquarters during the 1777-78 winter encampment. Both free and enslaved, of different racial and social backgrounds, they shared one small stone house for six months. Dress varied from the short gown and petticoat of Washington’s Black cook to the gowns worn by Mrs. Washington. Washerwomen worked at Headquarters, but then so did the commander in chief of the Continental Army. Tights quarters must have made for some very interesting times.
I would love to curate an exhibit focusing on the war in Connecticut, not only the larger British raids but the numerous clashes between the state troops and the Associated Loyalists along the coastline.
Daniel J. Tortora
An exhibit on caps and helmets of the Revolutionary War.
Susan Brynne Long
My exhibition would focus on This topic offers us a better understanding of how non-combatants participated in the Revolution. Early Americans bore the burden of hosting British and British-allied prisoners in their communities during the war. Americans also heard horror stories about the British treatment of captive Americans, an awareness which lent aggression to their dealings with the British, British prisoners in particular. I would include journals from men imprisoned in such infamous places as the HMSJersey, like the diary of Christopher Hawkins, to help bring the exhibition to life.
American museums (and popular histories) seem to imply that Washington’s rebels won the war on their own. The truth is that they wouldn’t have won anything had it not been for France, and, to a lesser degree, Spain and Holland. My exhibit would show the contribution of our allies including those that made smaller contributions include the Oneida Indian nation and Hyder Ali in India.
Bettina A. Norton
An exhibit on cartoons of the era would be fabulous.
J. L. Bell
How about an exhibit on the artifacts and memories of children caught up in the Revolution? That display could include toys like Thomas Apthorp’s whirligig made from a flattened musket ball. It could show printed material, such as a “New-England Primer” or other textbook and the broadside about Gen. James Wolfe that Christopher Seider had in his pocket when he was shot in 1770. And viewers could see artifacts created by children themselves: sewing samplers and handwriting exercises with patriotic phrases. More than half the eighteenth-century American population were children, after all.