A good museum is a gift to all. A bad one is more than just a missed opportunity; it is a canker sore to the collective soul.
It has been with a certain amount of trepidation that I have watched these last few years as, across the street from the First National Bank, a plot of ground slowly turned into a museum. The trepidation came from recent history. I am not a big fan of the Constitution Museum, which I consider al flash and outward beauty surrounding little inner substance. I was concerned that the Museum of the American Revolution might be the same, a big, beautiful, dumbed-down museum full of cliché. However, when I saw some of the museum’s creators and historians discussing the tent they had unearthed that belonged to George Washington at Valley Forge, I believe, it gave me both a tinge of excitement (I wanted to see that tent!) and hope. These seemed like serious people discussing a serious subject.
I love museums. My book, Chasing History: One Man’s Road Trip Through the Presidential Libraries, is partially about the museums I visited at each of the thirteen official presidential libraries. Some were old fashioned and some were new-fangled. Some slanted toward their president’s point of view, some painstakingly neutral. Some – most, actually – were very good, a few disappointing.
It was during my trips to the official presidential libraries that I stopped off to see the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and spoke to Tom Schwartz, one of the creators of the museum and a man credited with pushing museums up and into modern times. He wanted to show Lincoln as a man, and not a god, and, toward that end, offered up something considered sacrilegious by some of the Lincoln stalwarts – instead of portraying him in statues, he put them in life-like form. He put together a museum that is a fun, unpretentious, but generally authoritative and honest look at Lincoln. It is not what I would call in-depth, but nor is it frivolous. It is not a perfect museum – I would have liked a lot more meat on that bone – but it was a good one, and I could imagine it exciting the interests of adults and children and causing them to seek more information.
As I approached the new Revolution Museum, I hoped or something similar. But, still, I couldn’t get out of my mind the disappointment I’d felt upon coming to that Constitution Center, couldn’t forget their program, a bit of stagy cornball Americana in which the narrator turns to her audience and says, portentously: “We the people means…YOU…and YOU…and You…” Still, I am a Philadelphia sports fan. I hope for the best but prepare for the worst. I still remember the first museum I ever saw that particularly struck me, which was the Salem Witch Museum around Boston, where I was on vacation with my family. Everything I felt, saw, or ate was touched by the magic of summer and vacation. But my favorite part was that museum, which did its best to exploit the excitement of witchcraft without ignoring the issues of human psychology that the event encompassed. I stared at the wax figures unblinkingly, watched the portrayal of the men placing rock after rock on one of these unfortunate women.
So, you get the idea of what I am after. I am after a touch of magic.
But…I am a historian as well. I am disturbed enough about the lack of historical knowledge people have to have left my job as a lawyer and begun Bow Tie Tours, a non-profit meant to do what it can to reverse that trend. This museum, of course, with its backing and its publicity can do much more. It is important that it not waste that opportunity in an attempt to dumb down events enough to reach the addled, spoiled, video-obsessed and perpetually A.D.D. youth of our nation.
If this all sounds like a difficult job for those folks putting together this museum, I can only say that it is.
And so, today I went on-line and took the step of becoming a “Patron” of the Museum. This meant I could take my time looking at the exhibits, not fly through them as most tourists will be required to do. I want to see what it has to offer, and offer a fair appraisal.
Initial Reactions on my First Visit
The first thing I noticed upon walking through the doors is the same thing I have been noticing all around Philadelphia lately, and that is an attempt to present things in a classy, posh manner. Philadelphia has grown tired of its status as second class city, or, even worse, third world city. Sometimes I sense a bit of an inferiority complex, as if it wants to be New York. Well, it isn’t New York (thank God,) and if it wants to be treated seriously, it might want to upgrade its transit system before it worries about fixing up the Bourse Building and the Market Street East Mall and kicking the homeless out of Love Park.
Nevertheless, the outside of the building is beautiful, as is the inside which features a nice stairway (which is going to be a gigantic pain in the neck for people trying to go the opposite direction from a recently finished movie or event.). My first stop was on the first floor, where I saw a series of tables and projects for younger children to take part in, all of which with a colonial theme. All well and fine.
Today’s main event for me was to be the main movie. I felt that this would give me an idea of what to expect with the rest of it. After all, it was the asinine program at the Constitution Center that truly caused me to go sour on the whole thing. If this movie stunk, then probably the entire museum would stink.
And so I sat and I watched. It didn’t stink. No, in fact I was fairly impressed with the breadth of it, and its seriousness. It was a nice job.
There have been some complaints made, by the Wall Street Journal among others, that the museum is PC. The movie discusses the indigenous people and it discusses slavery. Now, I hate to break it to the WSJ, but that isn’t PC, that’s history. Get over it. If we do not deal with issues such as slavery and the displacement of the American Indians, it will further serve to diminish the point of studying American History at all. It is part of the story, and to ignore it would be as silly and disingenuous as the JFK Library’s ignoring Kennedy’s health issues, his womanizing, and, in fact, the Bay of Pigs. Museums are not merely places to celebrate, but to contemplate as well, and if people are uncomfortable bringing such subjects up, then perhaps making them uncomfortable is a useful service. ‘Nuff said on that score.
I begin my walking tours at the Visitors Center which offers up its ancient video directed by John Huston and starring E.G. Marshall, a video so out of date that there are parts of it where you need to strain to see what is being portrayed. So perhaps my bar was a low one. But in fact, the museum did a nice job of portraying the early issues of the Revolution. No bells or whistles – no, no loud gunshot or the smoke of battle that you have at the Lincoln Museum, no snow like you get at Mount Vernon, and I am enough of a kid at heart to be a bit disappointed by this lack, but only a bit. In general, I walked out of the theater feeling reassured and hopeful, and ready to see the first exhibit…