It’s tough to impress a 12-year-old.
“It was so cool,” said Maggie Lowman of Staunton, Va., to her mother, Denise. “The seats rumbled and you could smell the sea!”
Maggie had just come from the short film “The Siege of Yorktown” in the 180-degree experiential theater at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown in the small burg on the York river near Williamsburg, Va.
My wife, Carol, and I had come to the museum during its recent 13-day grand opening (one day for each original colony), and we shared Maggie’s enthusiasm for the movie as well as the museum. As I watched the film, depicting the final major battle of the American Revolution, my seat shook from the boom of cannon fire and smoke rose from the floor as the French fleet fired a thunderous broadside and American artillery pummeled the British forces.
The new 80,000-square-foot facility, a redbrick Georgian structure with imposing white pillars, replaces the Yorktown Victory Center, a much smaller space that focused on the chronology rather than the social history of the American Revolution.
“The new museum is an expansion and enrichment of the old Victory Center,” said Thomas Davidson, senior curator at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. “We’re telling a story that’s not just the American Revolution; it’s the story of the emergence of a nation.”
And although the great battles of the revolution learned by schoolchildren in the United States aren’t ignored, the spotlight is clearly on people.
“We focused on individuals you probably never heard of,” Davidson said.
The Virginia museum — not to be confused with the recently opened Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia — is divided into five galleries: The British Empire and America; the Changing Relationship: Britain and North America; Revolution; the New Nation; and the American People. Touch screens, movies, hands-on exhibits and artifacts bring to life the stories of the rebels, loyalists, Native Americans and African Americans who lived through this turbulent time.
Upon entering the British Empire and America gallery, the first thing we saw was a life-size portrait of a resplendent George III from 1761-62, a time when most American colonists were still loyal to the king. By 1763, the French and Indian War had concluded, giving Britain dominance in North America. Long rifles and powder horns from that conflict are displayed in glass cases; an interactive map shows the Colonial boundaries, Native American lands and slave populations of the 13 colonies at the war’s end.
The seeds of slavery that would later divide the United States were, of course, planted during the Colonial period. We studied a small painting in this gallery of African merchant and scholar Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, one of those individuals we had never heard of. Diallo spent two years as a slave in Maryland before gaining his freedom and returning home to Senegal. This circa-1733 artwork is one of the earliest known portraits of an enslaved African in the British American colonies.
As the Colonial period progressed, the relationship between colonies and mother country grew more complicated. The Changing Relationship gallery illustrates how the colonists chaffed under economic restrictions imposed by the Crown. In a large-scale wharf diorama, barrels of American tobacco stand ready to be loaded onto ships for export to Britain. Panels explain that British law severely limited the manufacture of raw materials in North America.
A statue of Patrick Henry stands in front of the Red Lion Tavern, where a short film explains the growing Colonial anger over taxation. Nearby, a printing press demonstrates how the revolutionary message was sent throughout the colonies via the technology of the day. We watched children learn how type was set and saw examples of revolutionary newspapers and advertisements.
The tensions grew into outright war starting with the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. In the Revolution gallery, the “Battle of Great Bridge” diorama depicts colonial soldiers, protected by earthworks, shooting at approaching British regulars marching in formation in the open. For the British, this was a new kind of war. The Americans routed the redcoats in this little-known battle, fought near Norfolk in December 1775.
The revolution forced people to make profound decisions. This was especially so for African Americans and Native Americans. We stopped at a touch screen that tells the story of Mary Perth, an escaped slave from Virginia for whom the war presented an opportunity for freedom. Perth made her way north to New York, and later evacuated with the British to Nova Scotia. She eventually migrated to Sierra Leone.
A nearby panel asks what we would do in James Forten’s place. A free African American born in Philadelphia, Forten served as a powder boy on an American warship captured by the British. Forten refused an offer by his captors to send him to England to study. He insisted on remaining at home, opting to suffer the harsh conditions as a prisoner of war. After the war, Forten became a successful merchant and prominent abolitionist.
Native Americans were also forced to choose sides. We learned about Thayendanegea, or Joseph Brandt, who led the Mohawks against patriot forces throughout the war. Some, such as Seneca chief Cornplanter, urged neutrality. Tribes siding with the colonists included the Tuscaroras, Catawbas and Oneidas.
The remaining galleries focus on the nation that rose from the ashes of the revolution. Exhibits highlight the writing of the Constitution as well as issues that were to shape the fledgling nation — slavery, migration and immigration. We were surprised to find that citizenship was offered to “free white persons” after they lived in the country for only two years. An interactive map illustrates the burgeoning growth in the 13 original colonies and the pace of westward migration between 1763 and 1791.
Outside on the museum grounds, two exhibits detail life in revolutionary America. At the 18th-century farmhouse, home to the Edward Moss family during the war, we were greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread, as well as beans and molasses bubbling in a pot on the hearth. Dried herbs were hung from the rafters.
Nearby, in the Continental Army Encampment, a Colonial surgeon showed us the various knives, scalpels, saws, tonics and emetics of her trade. If you needed a musket ball removed from your body, she said, you could forget about anesthesia, but a limb removal might get you some laudanum to dull the pain. It wasn’t an easy time: A soldier during the revolution was far more likely to die from subsequent disease or infection than from the wounds sustained in battle.
We ended our visit at the small, but powerful, “I Was There” exhibit in the hallway outside the five main galleries. It contained photographs of soldiers taken long after the battles were over. In one, the sad, aged eyes of Jonathan Harrington stare back at the camera. One April morning in 1775, Jonathan’s mother woke him by shouting: “The regulars are coming!” The 16-year-old joined his patriot comrades in time to see the first shots fired during the battles of Lexington and Concord.
Another photo, taken in 1852, shows a remarkably fit-looking Conrad Heyer at 103. Seventy-six years earlier, Heyer crossed the Delaware with Gen. George Washington.
For me, these images best illustrate what this museum is all about. We had never heard of these ordinary individuals, but each one played a part in the creation of a country.
Lee is a writer based in Virginia Beach. Find him on Twitter: @writer1218.
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