The New American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
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To appeal to all the visitors they expect to come, curators have incorporated the perspectives of a wide swath of American history-makers, according to Armstrong. “We deliberately steered away strictly from stories that had George Washington at center stage because other museums already do that, and they do it well,” he says.
Kate Gruber, curator of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, says that the goal of the museum is to allow visitors to “connect on a personal level with the people of the past.” That’s more easily accomplished when the subjects are not necessarily icons of American history who have populated prominent narratives.
Many exhibits offer profiles of lesser known figures who contributed to the American tapestry, despite their lack of renown, such as Peter Harris, a Catawba Indian who fought on the side of the Patriots, and Nicholas Veeder, a New Yorker and American Revolution veteran who turned an old tumbledown stone fort into a museum full of relics he had collected and gave tours of the makeshift gallery until he died at age 100 in 1862.
But of all the diverse and colorful characters the new museum brings to life, it also engages the public by raising challenging points about the United States that are not easy to reconcile. “We don’t shy away from the tough questions,” says Gruber. “What does it mean to fight for liberty, to achieve independence, yet the country still permits slavery and women don’t have equal rights?”
Gruber says that there is no better place to have a museum that explores these facets of history than at Yorktown, where 8,000 soldiers under General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to the combined French and American forces under General George Washington in 1781. The defeat compelled the British to reconsider the effort against their American adversaries, and there were no major engagements for the remainder of the war. Two years later, the Treaty of Paris made American independence official.
“Yorktown was an end, but it was also a beginning,” says Gruber. “The United States is an ongoing experiment in democracy.”
Homer Lanier, the foundation’s interpretive program manager who oversees the outdoor living history areas at both Jamestown Settlement and at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, says that every part of the redesigned museum is meant to encourage “light bulb moments.” Lanier hopes that the encounters visitors have at the museum will inspire dialogue about what they’ve seen. “Hopefully on the way back home or to the hotel or classroom, the experiences will be conversation starters,” he says.
For example, Lanier and other foundation historians modeled one of the two outdoor living history areas at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, a late 18th century farm, after the homestead of Edward Moss, a middling Virginia farmer who inherited six enslaved laborers. “It was important for us not only to tell the story of Moss and his family but of the enslaved African Americans as well,” Lanier says.
One of the buildings in the new farmstead, for instance, is the slave quarter, which interprets history that has not received as much attention because it’s sometimes a tough subject to talk about. But Lanier says that the topic of human bondage is full of telling details. One example of how interpreters will convey the nuances of slavery is by incorporating “special items that enslaved people would have hidden from their master,” he says.
The backbone of the museum’s outdoor exhibits continues to be hands-on learning—cooperative tasks ranging from picking carrots to making candles, seasonally appropriate chores that are performed with the rhythms of the seasons as they would have been in the 18th century.
The military encampment, which interprets a Continental Army camp during the American Revolution, has added a drill field and parade ground, where visitors can fall in and drill with wooden muskets.
But the newest feature of the encampment sure to cause a stir is the artillery amphitheater, a tiered viewing arena that looks over a recreated fortification similar to the earthen fortresses soldiers made at Yorktown during the war. Twice daily, interpreters will fire one of five different pieces of artillery positioned on gun platforms, giving visitors a small sense of the deafening bombardment that occurred here nonstop for three weeks in 1781, an engagement that secured independence and planted the seeds of American culture as we know it.