The New American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

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Many lifelong Coastal Virginia residents have memories of visiting one of the region’s many history museums, if not recently, then perhaps on the obligatory grade school field trip. But if the caricatured version of the history museum was ever accurate—fusty corridors jammed with obscure artifacts, wordy signs and poorly-fitted mannequins—that’s no longer the case.

Exhibit A: The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

In March, officials with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the state agency that operates the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, hosted the grand opening for the new museum. The 13-day ceremony, which included festivities such as flag-raising observances and artillery demonstrations, marked the culmination of 10 years of planning and work.

Construction crews recently completed a $50 million overhaul of the 22-acre site, demolishing the museum built in 1976 and putting a new 80,000-square-foot building in its place. The museum now has more gallery and classroom space. The outdoor, living history portion of the museum has been reconfigured and expanded.

For all that money and effort, the commonwealth now has a museum that can speak to modern visitors in novel ways by bridging the gap between the 18th and 21st centuries.

Peter Armstrong, senior director of museum operations and education, says that integrating 21st century technology in the design was not only a new way to connect visitors to the past, but it was an element that school-aged learners now expect.

He has seen young folks approach static signboards only to press or swipe them, since those actions allow them to navigate around so many other displays in their lives. He says that people can debate the merits of children being too connected, but technology nevertheless remains “another method of communication that allows for new conversations.”

Several types of interactive displays included in the museum teach about early Americans. A life-sized touchscreen offers biographies of everyday people who happened to find themselves caught up in the dramatic events that unfolded in the late 18th century. The display is familiar to anyone who has used a smartphone; zoom in and zoom out features are available by spreading or pinching one’s hands, for instance.

At another station, a tabletop touchscreen game shows the movements of armies at several notable battles during the Revolutionary War. Visitors have the chance to become a field commander with a bird’s eye view of the action, maneuvering troops against opponents to see if they can outfox them.

That’s not to say the museum is strictly gadgetry. The new gallery space retains displays that have been mainstays of museum exhibits for ages. Original artifacts that illuminate life around the time of the American Revolution are accompanied by thorough descriptions of their provenance and significance. Timelines chronicle the epic events of the war in great detail. And yes, mannequins have been meticulously staged in vivid displays to reflect snapshots of telling moments during the war.

Armstrong says that those who wish to engage with this sort of deep knowledge about American history have the chance to do that in the new museum. But for people whose interest may be fleeting, the innovative ways that the museum presents this information breaks new ground in historical interpretation. And the touchscreens are only the start of it.

“What we’ve done here is to layer the styles of learning,” says Armstrong. “To accommodate all those styles of learning is our mission. You can experience all the sensory aspects of the Revolution.”

Planners have developed an app that allows users to explore people of the American Revolution and the places at the museum in as much detail as they choose. Hologram-like projections on clear screens show soldiers moving and talking in full battle dress.

At one station inside the permanent exhibition galleries, visitors step into a canvas tent and back into the American Revolution, as creative staging on the walls projects sounds and shadows one might have encountered in a similar dimly-lit tent more than two centuries ago. A video onscreen replays a scene that might have transpired underneath that shelter.

Armstrong says that placing guests in the moment not only offers a unique peek of life during the war, but it’s more informative, too. “We could have put a movie like this in a traditional setting, but here you get a better sense for what went on,” he says.

In fact, the heart of the new museum is a so-called experiential immersive theater, and it’s anything but a traditional setting. On a 180-degree screen, up to 70 people watch as “The Siege of Yorktown” unfolds around them in vivid detail. Seats vibrate when thunder crashes and cannons boom. Wind and smoke flow through the theater, as do the distinct scents of gunpowder, seawater and coffee.

In other areas, laymen might not notice areas where the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is tech-heavy, but industry professionals will. Motion sensors trigger videos and illumination within exhibit space, not only saving some on the electric bill but helping to preserve artifacts by limiting their exposure to light.

But if the furnishings of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown spin history on its head, the content it delivers is also a far cry from traditional interpretation.

It has to be, says Armstrong, if there’s any hope of imparting the important lessons of the American Revolution to the country’s diverse populace. He says that males and females of all ages and ethnicities will find the lessons of the American Revolution relevant.

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