New Museum Interprets American Revolution for New Audiences

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When young students approach a bust of the Marquis de Lafayette in the new permanent exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, they erupt lyrics from Hamilton: “Ev’ryone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!” The joyous energy created by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical has made the founders newly accessible by, as Miranda puts it, recasting it as “a story about America then, told by America now.” But this newfound affinity for the founders coexists with a disintegrating consensus about American history and the founding generation. Indeed, earlier this month, faculty and students at the University of Virginia, just over 100 miles away in Charlottesville, objected to the invocation of Thomas Jefferson as a moral authority in university announcements.

Along with the school buses in the museum’s parking lot, motor coaches and cars with license plates from across the country arrive, all drawn to Virginia’s “Historic Triangle,” a destination that includes Colonial Williamsburg and several National Park Service units devoted to colonial and Revolutionary history. The vehicles disgorge passengers who tend toward the conventional profile of museum visitors today: older and whiter. The demographic change that is reshaping the American public is well known to museums, and many struggle to not only learn how to reach young audiences in an environment defined by social media, but to find new ways to engage growing nontraditional audiences that have contentious relationships with traditional history museums or none at all. The construction of an entirely new museum at Yorktown by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, then, is an opportunity to see how a high-quality museum thinks about new methods of engaging audiences of the future.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is a Commonwealth agency that operates the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which together host nearly five hundred thousand visitors per year. The new American Revolution Museum succeeds the old Yorktown Victory Center, which succumbed to inadequate space and insurmountable wear and tear. The new facility overlooking the York River includes permanent and temporary exhibit galleries, education space, a café and gift shop, and a recreated “Continental army encampment and farm” outside. The entire package will be unveiled in March 2017, and while elements critical to this assessment are not yet installed, the permanent gallery and portions of the living history site are already open.

The new permanent gallery and its interpretive themes are introduced by two elements. An exterior corridor features enlarged daguerreotypes of elderly people—men and women, black and white—who had been alive during the Revolution, foreshadowing a focus on ordinary people’s experiences. The introductory film, “Liberty Fever,” fancifully recreates an 1820s travelling show that celebrates liberty. Both indicate the new exhibit’s central concern: how ordinary people navigated the challenges of liberty.

The exhibit itself is a chronological narrative of the American Revolution from the 1760s to the antebellum era, told through artifacts, text, films (including an experience theater about the Battle of Yorktown), recreated environments, and digital interactives. Notable are the attention paid to a diversity of participants in the Revolution—including women, Native Americans, and enslaved and free blacks—and the space devoted to the Revolution in the southern provinces. The heart of the narrative story wraps the political-ideological conflict around military campaigns and carries the struggles to establish nationhood into the early Republic period. It ends in the antebellum era, a decision that, along with the opening film, seems to frame this exhibit as “the story about America then, as told by Jacksonians.” The intended takeaway is that the Revolution was an evolutionary process and that visitors should feel empowered to participate.

A screenshot of the How Revolutionary Are You? quiz.

The permanent gallery also includes several digital interactives. A series of touchscreen maps allow visitors to trace regions, borders, populations, migrations, and commerce between 1763 and 1791. Other screens open an encyclopedia of battles or allow visitors to array land forces in a Southern Campaign battle, and one near the gallery exit connects questions of modern-day rights to those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. In “Personal Stories of the Revolution,” visitors can choose from a very diverse set of historical figures rendered in live action to hear their stories and explore related artifacts. A “personality quiz,” How Revolutionary Are You?, connects visitors by self-defined character traits to historical figures (apparently, I have affinity with loyalists or people who ran away). Several digital elements not yet installed aim to further satisfy the modern visitor’s need for choice and participation. They also further the museum’s ability to use digital tools to “break down the gallery walls.” One interactive, to be installed next to a 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence, will invite visitors to leave comments about that document. Soon a stylized “liberty tree” will also be installed near the end of the exhibit, with “lanterns” in the form of tablets, featuring visitor’s digital responses to prompts made in the space or from Twitter. Finally, a “digital trails” application will allow visitors to follow individual historical actors through the story and offer content relating that person to particular people, events, and places represented by artifacts on display. This program will be extended to embrace future temporary exhibits and even the outdoor living history area, so visitors can continue to contextualize the experience with a historical character after leaving the main gallery.

These adjustments—an expanded view of the scope and diverse participation in the American Revolution, and opportunities for social engagement and talkback through digital tools—track with current best practices in museum exhibition for audiences in the social media age. But I wonder to what extent the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, and other traditional history museums, will make themselves accessible to a wider audience that is detached from American history as presented by museums or those antagonistic toward it in general.

Earlier this fall a Sporkful podcast series, Who Is This Restaurant For?, explored the signals that dining establishments send out—such as menu items, tablecloths, and art—that unintentionally indicate exclusion. Museums also communicate inclusion and welcoming nonverbally through what Gretchen Jennings calls “institutional body language.” Signals are present in everything from building architecture to label copy. Even word choice—as Rose Kinsley, Margaret Middleton, and Porchia Moore suggest—in marketing and interpretive material can “inadvertently exclude and alienate visitors.”[i] I have seen how institutional body language can operate as threshold barriers in my own realm of Civil War museums. Confederate flags, only recently furled, have dissuaded African Americans from entering Civil War historic sites. My own institution, the American Civil War Museum, is constructing a new facility, and at a focus group, a young, white woman who self-identified as liberal and interested in history—but not our museum—said that she feared that we might build a classical structure with marble and columns, invoking symbols of white male authority and implicitly disinviting her. (We are not.)

Interpretive decisions about exhibit methods can also be a part of the institutional body language that attracts or repulses audiences. I wonder, for instance, how telling the story of the Revolution through its military campaigns, appealing to traditional audiences, might repel those critical of American glorification of military culture. Or, perhaps, how a potential visitor, clear-eyed about the destructive results of Whig victory on Native American peoples, might respond to the high-profile, if cautionary, positioning of Peter Harris, a Catawban Whig, as representative of Indian experience. Similarly, decorous cases containing weapons or decorative arts, all described with meaty label copy, may project tradition and dull parochialism from a distance and dissuade a visitor from even approaching and finding an unexpected and engaging story. On a larger scale the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown offers an interpretation that, despite its diversity and scope, has a surprisingly consensus storyline. Patriots rise, unified and indignant, at British attempts to enslave them. The sad and often violent fate of loyalists and refugees from slavery are hinted at in text panels, indeed, but never described in stories of patriots’ coercion or their own imperial ambitions. The 1779 Sullivan Expedition and Seneca war chief Cornplanter’s 1790 rebuke of George Washington as “town destroyer,” are presented in text labels, but imagine the interpretive power of a film or recreated environment devoted to those stories that could compete with the Battle of Great Bridge diorama or the Battle of Yorktown film. As is, layering diverse faces on top of a consensus story leads to what Andrew M. Schocket has called “a multi-cultural veneer on a deeply essentialist project” in American history museums.[ii] More importantly, by following this strategy, museums miss an opportunity to establish footholds for potentially antagonistic visitors or to leaven inspiration with reflection.

Despite these caveats, I hesitate to suggest that this museum’s current storyline and methods won’t attract or satisfy a young, multiethnic, audience. While visiting the museum, I saw three nonwhite teenagers taking selfies with a ceramic doll, watched a young Latina woman photograph a case of weapons, because she “likes the history,” and talked to a Chinese family visiting from their home in New York City. These are anecdotal observations, admittedly, but they suggest that in this transformational time of declining visitation, changing consumption styles, and expectations for experience, traditional history museums are working hard to figure out how best to help new audiences use the past to connect to a changing present.

Christopher Graham is the Andrew W. Mellon Guest Curator at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. He most recently taught history and museum studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

[i] R.P. Kinsley, M. Middleton, and P. Moore, “(Re)Frame: The Case for New Language in the 21st Century Museum,” Exhibition (36) 1, 56-63.

[ii] Andrew M. Schocket, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 102.

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