Revolution museum gathering its forces

American musket, 1776. American-produced arms from the early years of the war are exceedingly scarce. After 1777, imported arms increasingly displaced such locally produced weapons.
American musket, 1776. American-produced arms from the early years of the war are exceedingly scarce. After 1777, imported arms increasingly displaced such locally produced weapons. (American Revolution Center)
Posted: March 09, 2012

If only the canteen could talk.

Although the dark oak container looks inconsequential next to the original Declaration of Independence, it carries the inscription, "Carried at the Battle of the Brandywine." The date: Sept. 11 - of the year 1777.

In other words, it's a big deal.

So are thousands of other artifacts - including a fowling firearm carved from curly maple; Washington's tents at Valley Forge; a list of soldiers from Massachusetts, some barely old enough to shave - destined for display at the Museum of the American Revolution, slated to open in Old City in 2015.

The challenge now - besides raising $150 million for operations and construction and designing and erecting the 112,000-square-foot building - is presenting the brutal conflict without the benefit of photographs or film.

It falls to R. Scott Stephenson, director of collections and interpretation for the new national museum, to tell the story of what happened during the country's revolutionary period, which was only recorded on paper or stowed in survivors' memories.

"We don't have Mathew Brady," said Stephenson, referring to the man who photographed much of the Civil War, a conflict with images most anyone can conjure up. He calls this issue the "core conundrum."

"It's one of the challenges," to get people to "believe it actually happened," he said.

That's true, said Joseph J. Ellis, the Ford Foundation professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner. Over two centuries after these events, an aura surrounds the Founding Fathers.

"I think there is a mystique, an electromagnetic field built around the founders," Ellis said. "No realistic pictures will suffice."

And, added Stephenson, those existing pictures are of individuals who had money. "To modernize the artwork is challenging; it's stiff and formal."

Perhaps Stephenson's biggest challenge is to attract a 21st-century public. Using input from the museum's board of historians - which now takes up "many feet of shelf space" - Stephenson and staff will develop story lines and characters, connecting the academic to the creative in a don't-remind-me-of-social-studies-class way. They are exploring using trained interpreters and costumed reenactors. And of course, multimedia is on the design table.

But what really matters to Stephenson is a "layered approach," looking at one event through the eyes of different types of people. Not just citizens, but white citizens - loyalists and revolutionary supporters - and black soldiers, freemen and those working toward freedom, and so on. "We want it to be an emotional connection," he said.

Museum spokeswoman ZeeAnn Mason said the museum's board will meet in April to vote on the conceptual designs.

"The more successful we are, the more successful [other sites] will be. We are the point on the compass," said H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, chairman of the board of directors for the American Revolution Center, a nonprofit organization charged with creating the museum. Lenfest said the museum has artifacts on loan to the Mount Vernon museum, and the Library of Congress would lend its collection of George Washington's papers to the Philadelphia museum. Until the museum is built, many of the artifacts are either on loan to other museums or spread out in other locations in and around Philadelphia.

On a day-to-day basis, said Mason, there is much to do. Staff works on fund-raising, spending time with the architects and designers and dealing with preconstruction matters for the museum's foundation. Considering where the museum is being built, at Third and Chestnut Streets, the museum is "sensitive" to the possibility that archaeological finds may be unearthed.

Staff also are working on educational programs for school students, and a new iPad app contains images of the museum's collection.

And of course, the staff is always on the lookout for more artifacts. It's an "endless task," Mason said.

The museum has been at least 10 years in the making - in this iteration. A tug-of-war was settled last year between museum representatives and the National Park Service over its location - Philadelphia vs. Valley Forge National Historical Park - with the city winning the museum and Valley Forge getting some land.

In the early 1900s, a minister named W. Herbert Burk, who amassed much of the Valley Forge Society's collection, had tried and failed to build a museum to honor the Revolutionary War heroes' memory. Burk was a devotee of George Washington - so much so that when the step-great-granddaughter of Washington wanted to sell his Valley Forge tents and give the money to Confederate widows, Burk intervened and bought them for $5,000.

As time passed, so too did those who had fought in the Revolution.

"You would have thought [a museum] would have happened in the 19th century," said Ellis, "when there were still people alive to remember, [but the nation was] divided over the slavery issue."

Fast forward to now. Mason said the museum was close to the halfway point of its financial goal. "Every day I am opening 15 to 20 checks," she said. "It speaks to keeping the spirit of the American Revolution alive."

R. Gordon Wood, Alva O. May university professor and professor of history emeritus at Brown University, suggested the popularity of the Constitution Center has sparked interest in our country's early days. Ellis suggested another: People liked the "huge editorial projects" started a few decades ago in which the writings of founders like Thomas Jefferson and Washington were recovered.

Stephenson made another observation. Time magazine and U.S. News & World Report have recently published special editions about the Revolution. The National Museum of American History in Washington opened an exhibit Jan. 27 about Jefferson's relationship to slavery. When the country is faced with economic and political challenges, Stephenson said, when there are deep divisions, citizens look to the founding charters for guidance. This attention on the Revolution is "not a coincidence."

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