Location: 3rd & Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA, USA, Independence National Historical Park
Ticket Prices: $18 Student, $21 Adult
Opening Hours: Mon–Sun, 10am–5pm
While undertaking archival research in Philadelphia this summer, I finally had the chance to visit the Museum of the American Revolution (MAR), situated at the heart of the United States’ Independence National Historical Park. The Museum is still relatively new; it opened in 2017 on the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington & Concord – 19 April 1775. Both its modern architecture and its attention to visual experience and to cutting-edge digital history reflect its age. More importantly, those technologies, woven into eye-catching text panels and amongst many extant artefacts, help the MAR to tell a cohesive story within its main exhibit, divided chronologically into four sections: Becoming Revolutionaries (1760–1775), The Darkest Hour (1776–1778), A Revolutionary War (1778–1783), and A New Nation (1783–Present).
A large panel on the building’s exterior – the first thing that I saw while approaching the entrance – quotes the most-cited passage of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, That all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
This passage sets the stage for both the Museum’s tone and its anchoring message – the American Revolution was not just a war for independence. It was also an ever-evolving idea about rights and freedom that has been championed throughout history by Americans of different races, genders, and backgrounds who placed hope in the assertion that all Americans are equal.
As an early Americanist who has spent much of my time researching the American Revolution, I must point out that I find the tendency in studies of the Revolution to focus on the Declaration of Independence – and not on the realities of ‘freedom’ for enslaved people and women in the new republic – troublesome. At the start of my journey through the MAR (which begins with a short film, Revolution, outlining the story of the Revolution and its principles for those who may not be familiar with its history), I was apprehensive about the Museum’s decision to centre its historical interpretation on a patriotic view of freedom and equality.
As I ventured through the rooms of the exhibit I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the careful consideration and nuance that had been put into the research for the museum. Its panels and its collections cover the experience of the poor whites, backcountry settlers, African Americans, free and enslaved, and women who fought for, supported, and even pushed back against the Revolutionary agenda. It tells both an American story and a British one, including lots of transatlantic objects and drawing on an understanding of eighteenth-century British life and colonial experience. The artefacts are impressive, especially Washington’s War Tent (the Museum’s claim to fame); the virtual experiences like the 4-D Battle of Brandywine (where the visitor becomes a member of the Continental Army in the heat of battle) are fantastic; and the museum design is – to an early Americanist, mind you – genius (they built a Liberty Tree, colonial store fronts, and an eighteenth-century ship!).
Above all, the MAR does not shy away from the contradictions and bitter truths of the American Revolution, the nagging question historians of early America have when discussing the period: free for whom, and when?
Fittingly, the final rooms of the Museum focus on the aftermath of the Revolution and the Constitution, including its arguably failed attempts to enshrine the principles of the Revolution into law. The final thing visitors see is a closing short film, The Ongoing Revolution, which manages to contextualize the entire experience, while still driving home the MAR’s message. As the film flashes through images of people around the world campaigning for women’s rights, civil rights, and basic humanitarian freedoms over the last two hundred years, it makes linkages between the Revolutionary belief that “all men are created equal” and the present day, but its patriotic imagery doesn’t paper over the continued struggle for equality in America and around the globe. Instead, it concludes that the true American Revolution – a revolution in ideas about freedom – has never been fully realized, and that by sharing its history with the public, we can encourage new generations of global citizens to fight for equality. Check out the Museum of the American Revolution the next time you’re in Philadelphia – you won’t be disappointed!
Image: Author’s own.