Purchase Story

The Museum of the American Revolution

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

If the musical Hamilton is responsible for the current boost of interest in our Founding Fathers, the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which opened on April 19 (the 242nd anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord), should propel American history to a much wider audience. The museum is at the corner of Third and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, just across the street from the First Bank, Hamilton’s bank, and just a stone’s throw from Carpenters’ Hall, where the first Continental Congress met. Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution ratified, is just a block farther down Chestnut Street.

Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the 118,000-square-foot building is at Third Street and Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Museum of the American Revolution photo.

March to Valley Forge by William B.T. Trego (1858-1909), oil on canvas, 38" x 78", is in the museum’s collection. It is one of the most iconic commemorative artworks regarding the American Revolution. It was painted in Philadelphia and exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1883. Trego was inspired by a passage from Washington Irving’s Life of Washington: “Sad and dreary was the march to Valley Forge; uncheered by the recollection of any recent triumph...Hungry and cold were the poor fellows who had so long been keeping the field; for provisions were scant, clothing worn out and so badly off were they for shoes, that the footsteps of many might be tracked in blood.” Museum of the American Revolution photo.

“Freedom wore a red coat” tells the story of enslaved 14-year-old London Pleasants. On January 7, 1781, he joined a Loyalist regiment camped on his owner’s plantation near Richmond and took an oath to fight for King George III. Thousands of slaves fled to the British Army in search of freedom.

The Library Company of Philadelphia lent Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, a 1792 oil painting by Samuel Jennings. It depicts Liberty offering the benefits of learning to African Americans freed from slavery—a fitting hope for the new nation. Many on the board of the Library Company were abolitionists.

The museum tells the story of the American Revolution from the roots of the conflict—the beginnings of armed resistance that began in Boston and moved on to the middle colonies—to the end with the help of the French, with the victory at Yorktown. It admits that the revolutionary fight for rights and liberties continues today. Using paintings, films, recordings, murals, maps, books, documents, objects, wall texts, iPads, and life-size figures, this interactive museum is as engaging as theater.

“I want people to feel like they are walking through a movie,” said historian Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s chief of collections, exhibitions, and programming, who has been working on this project with a group of about a dozen colleagues for a decade. “We need to tell this story in real time to a new generation. If the galleries twist and turn, that is literally what happened; we want to show the physicality of the long eight-year conflict.”

Using American furniture, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, arms and accouter-ments, newspapers, and paintings, some on loan from museums, historical societies, and private collections and many from the museum’s collection of 5000 objects, the creative installation makes history comes alive. At the same time, hard questions about the origins, process, and outcome of the revolution and the role of Native Americans, women, and hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans who inhabited the British Empire is woven into the fabric. Perhaps this new museum will even breathe new life and meaning into collecting Americana and the antiques trade.

The museum’s collection was begun more than a century ago by the Reverend W. Herbert Burk, the rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania. In a sermon in 1903, he proposed adding a museum to the Washington Memorial Chapel under construction in Valley Forge and began collecting artifacts for a Valley Forge Museum, later the Valley Forge Historical Society. In 1909 he purchased George Washington’s tent, where the general met with his aides, dined, and slept, moving it from battlefield to battlefield until the end of the war. Washington took his tent home to Mount Vernon when he resigned as commander in chief, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. This big tent has its own gallery and 12-minute film. “The tent, like the republic, survives” is the narrator’s message.

George Washington’s tent was probably made in Reading, Pennsylvania, when the artisans of Philadelphia fled to Reading and Lancaster in early 1778, while Washington was encamped at Valley Forge and the British were occupying Philadelphia. Washington used this large marquee for meetings and sleeping. It moved with him from battlefield to battlefield until the siege at Yorktown. It is the “room where it happened,” according to the song in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Officially called the officer’s marquee, it had a smaller inner chamber used for Washington’s private office. Inner walls separated the oval ends. Washington slept in one end. William “Billy” Lee, Washington’s enslaved valet, slept in the other end.

The large tent was put up for sale in 1909 by Mary Lee, a direct descendant of Martha Washington and daughter of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, when she was raising money for Confederate war widows. The Reverend W. Herbert Burk, who dreamed of creating a museum in Valley Forge, raised $5000 from hundreds of ordinary Americans to purchase the tent. George Washington Parke Custis had originally purchased the tent at the estate sale of his grandmother Martha Washington.

The story is told of how the Washington artifacts, which were stored in the cellar of Arlington House during its occupation by the Union Army, were protected by Selina Gray, a second-generation slave, who remained at Arlington House during the Civil War. In January 1862 the tents and other Washington family artifacts were transferred to the U.S. Patent Office for safekeeping. Gray was given her freedom in 1863 with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. She and her family moved to a 15-acre farm nearby.

George Washington Custis Lee, Robert and Mary Lee’s son, sued to have the Arlington estate property reinstated to him. Arlington House was finally returned to the Custis Lee family in 1882, but it was in disrepair, and in 1864, Secretary of War Stanton had appropriated the grounds as a military cemetery. In 1883 the U.S. government purchased the property for $150,000. Finally in 1901, during the McKinley administration, the tents were returned to the Custis Lee family. The smaller tent that functioned as Washington’s private office inside the large officer’s tent is on view at the Yorktown Visitor Center next to the American Revolution Museum, Yorktown, Virginia. A large dining tent is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

The roof and sides of the tent on view at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia were conserved by Virginia Whelan, a textile conservator in private practice outside Philadelphia, who calls it “Washington’s Oval Office and mobile home.” The red-painted finials copy those depicted on the tent in Charles Willson Peale’s painting of Lafayette, Washington, and Washington’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman, commissioned by the governor of Maryland for the Maryland State House. Virginia Whelan photo.

Survival wasn’t easy. The exhibits and films investigate the roots of the conflict in the 1760s and the very beginnings of armed resistance. They remind us about divided loyalties and the sequence of events during the birth of our nation.

A diverse group of life-size figures of Continental soldiers in a tussle in Boston in 1775 is pulled apart by George Washington himself in his effort to unify Bostonians and Virginians in the early days of the revolt. A Loyalist legion of riders on taxidermal horses demonstrates how hard it was for some to renounce their British heritage. These figures, created by StudioEIS, based in Brooklyn, New York, make this museum experience theatrical. Karen Atta of Atta Studio, another New York City sculpture firm, made the figures representing Native Americans that tell the story of how conflicts over native lands created the first rumblings of discontent. Both sides called on Amerindians for support. Some of the native peoples stayed neutral; some sided with the British; and the Oneida sided with the revolutionaries, hoping for favorable trade and protection of their homeland.

Artifacts and paintings tell much of the story. There are portraits of English and French generals, not always the ones you’ve heard of. A tall comb-back Windsor speaker’s chair from Carpenters’ Hall was witness to the First Continental Congress that met in September and October 1774 in response to the Intolerable Acts. It does make sense to have the museum in the neighborhood where momentous events took place.

This is a first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, July 6, 1776, which is in the museum’s collection. A German-language version appeared three days later in the Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote, a newspaper that served Pennsylvania’s large German-speaking community. By the end of August 1776, the Declaration had been reprinted in at least 29 newspapers and 14 broadsides. Museum of the American Revolution photo.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was published in London in 1773. Phillis Wheatley, a servant in the household of Boston Quaker John Wheatley, was taught to read the classics and encouraged to write her poetry. The Wheatleys sent her to England to have her book published, and she was well accepted as proof that African Americans had minds equal to anyone and therefore deserved liberty. Her engraved portrait was drawn by African American artist Scipio Moorhead of Boston. This copy of the book is on loan to the Museum of the American Revolution by Dr. Marion T. Lane, a retired educator and author of Patriots of African Descent in the Revolutionary War,a children’s book about the service of African Americans during the Revolutionary War. Lane is on the board of directors of the Museum of the American Revolution. Museum of the American Revolution photo.

Bust of Washington by William Rush, terra cotta, is in the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution. Rush modeled it for the sixth annual exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1817. A founder of the academy, Rush was a Revolutionary War veteran. The original exhibition label read: “From the familiarity of the artist with Washington, his opportunities of comparing his work with the original, and his acknowledged talent, it is claimed that this bust is the most perfect likeness existing.” Curator Stephenson said, “I wish I had installed it higher so people could look into the face of six-foot-tall Washington.” Museum of the American Revolution photo.

In 2010 the National Park Service gave up ownership of the Independence National Park’s visitors’ center that had functioned during the bicentennial. This opened the way for a place for the Museum of the American Revolution, which launched a $150 million campaign to build, open, and endow a new private museum in its place. The campaign exceeded its fundraising goals, thanks in part to a $63 million gift from Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and $10 million from the Oneida Nation. The three-story building, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, known for modern Georgian-style buildings, is red brick with white trim and fits into the neighborhood. Like many modern museums, it was designed with plenty of rental space. It has an enormous lobby and a winding staircase, perfect for a bride to descend, and more space for parties on the third floor. The museum on the second floor is accessible by the staircase and elevators. An introductory film is shown in a theater on the first floor.

In the film an angry mob pulls down a gilded lead statue of King George III on Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan, after a reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776. The equestrian figure is said to have been made into 42,000 bullets for the Continental Army at a Connecticut foundry. Two parts of the statue, found years later in a Connecticut swamp, are in a case upstairs at the museum; they were lent by the New-York Historical Society.

The message of the museum, spelled out on wall labels, is how radical it was to believe that “ordinary people” can rule themselves. The installations show how these people became revolutionaries in taverns, at tea parties, and under a re-created liberty tree, where a broadside is posted advertising slaves for sale. The revolutionaries boycotted British goods, stocked in a re-created shop with some imported goods and some made in America. The fact that the “ordinary people” with inalienable rights to pursue happiness were white men and property owners is not overlooked.

Stories of poor farmers, free blacks, enslaved Africans, native tribes, Quakers, women, and soldiers are told.

“There were five hundred women camp followers among the three thousand at Valley Forge,” said one of the five well-informed educators stationed in the galleries.

There were women on both sides. One was Frederika Charlotte Riedesel, a German baroness and wife of Major-General Friedrich Riedesel, commander of German troops from the Duchy of Brunswick, who fought with Burgoyne’s army. Frederika witnessed the Battle of Saratoga and wrote one of the finest accounts of it in her diary, which was published in 1800 when she was back in Germany, having survived her years as a camp follower with her three young girls. According to the wall label, she was one of about 1000 who followed the British Army to Saratoga.

There are portraits of British officers in red coats and a white hunting shirt worn by marksmen in the Continental Army. Washington wrote that the sight of their white shirts brought fear to the British. One of only two white marksmen’s shirts to survive is on display.

“We did not have a Mathew Brady to tell our story,” said Stephenson, upon explaining how a small group of historians wrote the script, chose the objects, and commissioned the life-size figures and films.

In one gallery, the floor rumbles and the smell of gunpowder fills the air as the visitor stands on the front line of the Battle of Brandywine, a costly loss for the Continental troops that allowed the British to occupy Philadelphia in 1777. The battle is further described on a wall-size map with lights showing the troop movements.

There is plenty to interest an audience of ages eight to 80. There are enough places to sit down and watch films to combat fatigue. One can climb onto a ship equipped with cannon to learn how privateers interfered with British shipping. And there are enough long arms, pistols, swords, and accouterments of the highest quality to keep cognoscenti and amateurs intrigued.

This rare linen and wool 1780-90 hunting shirt is in the Museum of the American Revolution’s collection. According to the museum label, Washington understood the powerful psychological effects of these uniquely American garments. He observed that the rifleman’s dress is “supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.” Washington had hoped to clothe his entire army in hunting shirts as a way to unite the men and abolish provincial distinctions, which led to jealousy and dissatisfaction.

These two silver camp cups owned by George Washington were made by Edmund Milne in Philadelphia in 1777. Originally a set of 12, the cups were used to serve wine to aides and guests at the general’s table and are in the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution. Museum of the American Revolution

It is possible to have a memorable experience in a 90-minute guided tour, but those who want to be fully engaged will want to stay longer and move at their own pace. Do half in the morning, take a lunch break, and tackle the rest in the afternoon. The Cross Keys Tavern on the first floor, which opens onto the plaza, is quick and convenient, but the food is not very good.

Tickets for museum entry are $19 for adults, $17 for students, the military, and seniors, and $12 for children over six. Tickets are good for two consecutive days, and the cost of tickets for a first visit can be applied to a museum membership, which begins at $65 for an individual and goes to $150 for a family. Members can enter for free. Hours are extended during the summer months and go from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. The museum is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Summer is a good time to go; there are no school groups. About 1000 people come on weekdays and 1500 on weekends. Timed tickets in 20-minute intervals can be bought online, and some tickets are put aside for “walk ups.” It did not seem too crowded. The audience was totally engaged; some were in long conversations with one of the five young educator/historian docents posted in the galleries; others were reading biographies on iPads, and others read the wall labels.

This drum has the label of Robert Crosman (1707-1799) of Taunton, Massachusetts. Crosman is well known to collectors of American furniture as the decorator of 21 chests of drawers with floral motifs, birds, and chickens, some signed and dated in the years 1729 to 1742. Three drums made by Crosman survive. According to assistant curator Matthew Skic, the drum maker’s label, dated 1740, can be seen through a hole on the body of the drum, the traditional place for drum makers to affix their names. The Museum of the American Revolution acquired the drum privately in 2014.

A diminutive (22¾" x 22 3/8" x 12½") paint-decorated pine chest of drawers (not shown), decorated by Crosman and dated 1729, sold at Christie’s sale of the collection of Mrs. J. Insley Blair in January 2006 for $2,928,000 to a Boston collector. Museum of the American Revolution photo.

Winterthur lent the painted and dyed cotton from India on the left; it’s the sort sold by the British to Colonial merchants. In 1775 these imported goods were banned by non-importation agreements. The American printed cotton on the right is by Walters & Bedwell, which advertised in the Pennsylvania Packet of March 13, 1775, “Linen Printing in All its Branches…at the Manufactory near the Three-Mile Stone on Germantown Road.” By 1777 the war was raging, and Walters notified the public that he had entirely quit the linen-stamping business.

Some of the treasures on view for the opening will be returned to museums and collectors in September and replaced by others, so spring visitors will see some changes if they return in the fall. The museum shop stays open half an hour after the museum closes. It has a lot of clothes and hats and a wall of books (hardbound and paperback), including popular bestsellers by David McCullough and Nathaniel Philbrick and others by scholars, but, with the exception of a few on arms and insignia, none on objects. The museum has no catalog of the exhibition or even reprints of articles about the museum for people to take home.

The article that appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Antiques and Fine Arts by assistant curator Matthew Skic, a 2016 Winterthur graduate who did his thesis on Philadelphia gunsmiths, should be reprinted and sold, although it’s available online. A book on Washington’s tent and its conservation by Virginia Whelan and structural engineers needs to be written. A reprint of the New York Times July 2, 2017, Sunday magazine supplement with the Constitution of the United States annotated by lawmakers, scholars, and authors, together with Garry Wills’s essay “Child of the Enlightenment” could perhaps be reprinted and for sale. It is not online. It answers the question asked early on this walk through a time line: “How do you create a government from scratch?”

For more information, call (215) 253-6731 or see the website (www.amrevmuseum.org).

Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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