Previewing the Museum of the American Revolution

On a misty winter night, scores of people traveled through fog to the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Individuals of all ages braved the slick roads to listen to a lecture delivered by R. Scott Stephenson, the Vice-President of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programming for the Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR). Armed with images of artifacts and renderings of new exhibitions, Stephenson’s talk previewed what visitors will find in the museum when it opens in a few months. He addressed the history of the collections, the institution’s past and establishment, and the significance of the museum for twenty-first century Americans. Since the War for Independence ended in 1783, all sorts of people have debated its meaning and legacy. However, the MoAR seems to be entering into this conversation at a precarious moment of heightened political divisions and fear of future uncertainties. Furthermore, over the next nine years, amid this political climate, the country will be preparing to honor its 2026 Sestercentennial. The MoAR will certainly be a part of that conversation.

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A rendering of the Museum of the American Revolution, which opens on April 19 on the corner of the 3rd and Chestnut Streets. Image from amrevmuseum.org.

In his presentation, Stephenson praised the museum’s humble originator, an Episcopalian minister named Herbert Burk. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Reverend Burk founded the Washington Memorial Chapel and began preserving objects from the Revolutionary era, including Native American artifacts, the Marquis de Lafayette’s check for his military service, and other period documents. His crown jewel was George Washington’s marquee, the original canvas tent that served as the general’s headquarters throughout much of the war. Many of Burk’s objects, including the marquee, remain in the collections of the MoAR. Herbert Burk’s efforts attracted the attention of a likeminded supporter of historic preservation, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, the president and his wife traveled to Valley Forge so that he may deliver a speech on behalf of Burk’s project.[1]

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Dr. R. Scott Stephenson previews the MoAR to a full Washington Memorial Chapel January 3rd, 2016.

Over a hundred years later, Burk’s instinct to preserve became Scott Stephenson’s calling. Stephenson, who received a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia, has become a familiar face on network news programs over the past few years, speaking with reporters about the new museum’s collections and their significance. In his presentation at Valley Forge, Stephenson highlighted some of institution’s advanced and modern features: a digitally recreated statue of King George III that Patriots and their slaves destroyed at the New York City Bowling Green in July 1776, a life-size reproduction of the Boston Liberty tree, a replica of an eighteenth-century privateer ship constructed with the help of the Independence Seaport Museum, and a theater that recreates the British charge up Osborne’s Hill at the battle of Brandywine. Stephenson explained that the MoAR hopes not to heap facts upon visitors, but rather to provoke them with contemporary media and interesting questions.[2]

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A rendering of the Boston Liberty Tree exhibit. Image from amrevmuseum.org.

But beneath these bells and whistles is a larger narrative about what the American Revolution means to the country in 2017. In his recent book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, historian Robert Parkinson claimed “What would become known as the American Revolution was a massive argument over the meaning of those words, whom they applied to, and who were the most legitimate, responsible guardians of those ideals.” The museum is a discussion about those very ambiguities. What type of nation did the revolutionaries create, and for whom did they create it? The War for Independence was more than a military slugfest; it was “a contest of injuries and of interpretation,” interpretations that continue to carry plenty of political weight. Politicians on both sides of the aisle often try to claim the mandate of the revolutionaries to support their political agendas. Bancroft Prize winning historian Jill Lepore believes that the fascination with connecting the ideas of the revolutionaries to contemporary issues is often problematic.

“What would the founders do?” is, from the point of view of historical  analysis, an ill-considered and unanswerable question, and pointless, too. Jurists and legislators need to investigate what the framers meant, and some Christians make moral decisions by wondering what Jesus would do, but no NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it.

Many people with vastly different interpretations of the American Revolution will deem the MoAR as a bastion of historical “truth”. Museums are more than storehouses for old materials, they are spaces where individuals form and reform their understanding of citizenship, nationalism, and identity.[3]

The years between President Johnson’s Bicentennial Commission proposal in 1966 and the national celebration a decade later were years of intense divisions. As the commissioners planned how to best to honor the country’s birthday, they lived through the Vietnam War, political assassinations, Woodstock, Kent State, and Watergate. Similarly, the Museum of the American Revolution will open its doors at a time of hyper-partisanship with a major national anniversary looming. As the nation plans to celebrate its Sestercentennial, the MoAR will have to grapple with it all. The Museum of the American Revolution will open to the public this April 19, two hundred and forty two years after minutemen at the Lexington green and the Concord Bridge fired upon British regulars.


     [1] Lorett Treese, Valley Forge: Making and Remaking of a National Symbol (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1995), 88-89, 91-93.

     [2] CBS News, “First American Revolution museum set to open,” filmed [2012], YouTube video, 02:35, posted [July 2012], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqfAO7o4ggE; Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016), 161.

     [3] Robert Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Williamsburg and Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 4, 8; Jill LePore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), x; Taylor, 372-73; Jill Lepore, The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 124-25.

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