Visiting the Museum of the American Revolution

I visited the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City, Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon for the first time. I’ve been looking forward to the Museum opening since news first broke a few years ago that it was coming. The way that the Museum has transformed what was a dead part of Old City (3rd and Chestnut) into an attractive, civically meaningful space is worth celebrating.

It was $19 for a ticket, and the entire space feels both traditional and modern, honoring the stories of the American Revolution in an uplifting way.

That was my impression from the visit: the Museum really tells the stories (plural) of the American Revolution as much as it communicates the meta-narrative of the revolution as a political and world-historical act. This was impressive, and I’m pleased in particular with the way that the story of the Oneida Indians is told, as well as littler moments like the incursion into Quebec and attempt to broaden the war there, along with the stories of prominent women and blacks in the war.

A disappointment was what felt like a propagandistic treatment of the idea of “liberty” in the American Revolution, one that spoke of liberty in the sense that it is ever expanding and implicitly destined for America to expand around the globe. The sense of the American Revolution as an essentially conservative resolution, and indeed one of the only successful conservative revolutions in history, was not meaningfully communicated. There were some initial panels on the evolution of the idea of “American Liberty” as distinct from “British Liberty” and the historical role played by Britain in protecting rights—but there was not, to my mind, the necessary underscoring that the American Revolution didn’t represent a radical break with the past so much as a conservation of the best aspects and principles of ancient, constitutional self-governance and a fulfillment of Enlightenment-era ideas around the dignity and liberty of free peoples with respect to government. A better name for the Museum might have been the “Museum of the American War of Independence,” as a way to signal that a conservation of rights was sought by means of independence from an empire that had grown hostile to liberty.

Still, the Museum is an excellent addition to Philadelphia’s historical and educational landscape. It’s a substantial place of learning and appreciation, especially for visitors who have for too long suffered from too much kitsch in Old City and not enough meaningful history.