Revolutionary doings on South Third Street

Rendering of one of the curved digital displays planned for the Museum of the American Revolution.
Rendering of one of the curved digital displays planned for the Museum of the American Revolution. (Wood, Ronsaville, Harlin Inc.)
Posted: June 07, 2014

South Third Street is kind of a mess these days.

Demolition of the burned-out Suit Corner store at Market Street is proceeding fairly quickly.

Demolition of the old Independence Park visitor center at Chestnut Street - not so quickly.

"They really built that tower well," said Michael Quinn, head of the Museum of the American Revolution, referring to the building's 130-foot-high square bell tower. "It's concrete, full of rebar. The brick is only a veneer."

The visitor center, though, has got to go, and Quinn is certain that his museum, as yet a set of drawings, blueprints, and PowerPoint presentations, is on the cusp of construction.

Groundbreaking on the $119 million building is now set for September, he said. Fund-raising has reached $103.5 million, including two as-yet-unannounced gifts totaling $1.5 million.

"We will not be taking on debt to build the building," Quinn said, mindful that "other institutions have suffered because of debt payments."

A museum membership program has been launched, with 3,000 signed on so far, and museum officials are working with consultants on designing an endowment campaign with an initial target of $25 million. Their current capital drive is seeking $150 million total. (H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, acting publisher of The Inquirer, is one of the major backers of the museum.)

With its opening slated for 2016, the question arises: What will draw a visitor to such a museum in a town and region already well-known for revolutionary sites?

In answer, Quinn has been rolling out the museum's "concepts" - plans that show the "narrative arc" of the exhibitions and how visitors will experience them.

Briefly: Stodgy is out.

Yes, the museum has a rich array of artifacts - largely the holdings of the Valley Forge Historical Society acquired years ago - capped by George Washington's field tent, which sheltered the general at Valley Forge and elsewhere throughout the revolution's military campaigns.

"It may be the only surviving tent from the Revolution," said Quinn, who likes to refer to the fragile canvas as "the first White House."

While the exhibition program outlined by museum officials makes heavy use of such original artifacts, the essence of the museum can be found in the whiz-bang presentations being worked up.

Galleries will feature oversize, curved digital displays that will surround visitors with different environments - most spectacularly by placing them, in one instance, in the middle of a firefight with the British.

Quinn said the battle gallery will feature digital displays of soldiers firing, the chaotic crack of bullets exploding, the "smoke" of war in the midst of civilian society.

"As crude as warfare seemed at the time," he said, "it still claimed 1 percent of the colonial population as casualties."

Visitors will be in the thick of it.

The museum, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, will feature a 5,000-square-foot gallery on the first floor for changing exhibitions.

The core exhibition galleries will be arrayed on the second floor. In addition to the battle room, one gallery will feature a faux "Liberty Tree" at its center. Visitors will be able to explore the prewar debates held throughout the colonies under real so-called Liberty Trees. (There will also be a branch from a Liberty Tree that survived into the 20th century.) Another gallery will surround visitors with mobs so angry with King George III that they topple his statue.

The exhibits will take visitors on a roughly chronological journey, exploring the origins of the revolution, the debates over taxation and representation, and through the fighting, the role of privateers (whose world visitors will be able to enter digitally), the role of France, and ultimate victory.

As a whole, Quinn said, the museum will seek to explore questions about radicalization - "How did these people become radicals so quickly?" - the nature of representative government, slavery, race and equality, the role of native peoples in the conflict, and the future trajectory of American society.

"The Revolution wasn't just a rebellion," he said. "It established a whole political philosophy."

The exhibition program is overseen by R. Scott Stephenson, the museum's director of collections and interpretation. He is working with MFM Design, a Bethesda, Md., exhibition-design firm.

Quinn sees the museum ultimately as "the glue" binding together the area's many 18th-century and Revolutionary War sites. It will tell the "whole story" of the war from origins to conclusion and will give answers to visitors who see the war "as a mystery."

"This will be a national institution," he said. "It is long overdue to have one place to tell the story of the American Revolution - it's the most important event in our history."


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594 215-854-5594

@SPSalisbury

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