This Museum is Different
The grand re-opening of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is here! It’s a fabulous museum that uses innovative exhibits and interactives to teach visitors the early history of the United States. One new addition to the museum is the Living History Experience. The museum features events leading up to the British surrender at Yorktown, along with the period that directly followed the definitive battle. It also illuminates the contributions of specific people who lived in the 13 colonies—not just white males who are typically the focus.
In addition to those all-important generals and statesmen like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, this museum looks closely at the daily lives of Native Americans, French contributors, women, children, and even pets. The museum also focuses on the lives of African Americans brought here as slaves. It’s a vivid, immersive experience that showcases some less well-known stories. For information on how the museum approached its mission, here is an excerpt from an interview with the Museum’s Senior Curator, Tom Davidson.
Q: On what time period does the museum focus?
A: We cover the period from 1776 to 1792. The museum starts out with depictions of the British victory in the French Indian War. King George was the British leader for the entire period. With a combination of artifacts and electronic Interactives and graphics we try to give an impression of what America was like during that time.
Q: How have you personalized this story?
A: We particularly talk about some groups of people that don’t often get talked about. Here we are at a time when 25% of all Colonial Americans were enslaved African Americans. So one of the people we feature here is Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. One of our prize holdings is his portrait. He was one of the first enslaved African American to have his portrait painted from life that we know of. The portrait was painted in 1753. People in Western Africa who were vulnerable often ended up as slaves. Diallo was a merchant and some bandits ambushed him and stole his goods. Then they took him off and sold him to an English slave trader. Once he got to America, he was a slave in Maryland.
Q: Why did he have his portrait painted? Why is he so important?
A: He managed to write a letter back home telling his people what had happened to him. The letter was read along the way by various officials associated with the trade company, and as a result, he was brought back to Britain, freed and became a celebrity. That’s when he actually got his portrait painted. He’s in some ways the beginning of the anti-slavery movement. His plight brought awareness that slavery is an injustice and questioned whether enslavement was a normal condition. Slavery was still legal in Europe at that time.
Q: What other stories do you tell?
A: So what we try to do here is have a broad section of society. We also want to talk about geography and how British colonial America at the time is a thin strip along the coast. Places like West Virginia and western Pennsylvania and Western New York are still Indian country.
Using New Technology to Tell an Old Story
Interview with Heather Hower, Media Project Manager on the New Technology Used in the New Museum
Q: What happens in the New World that leads to further conflict?
A: We are right at the point in history when the Great Migration West begins, and the migration West is part of our story. Because one of the conflicts between the British government and the American colonists was the fact that Americans wanted to move west, and the British government was not thrilled by that idea. The British government said, “You’ve got plenty of land already. If you go west you’re going to cause a lot of trouble with the Indians then we’ll have to send over troops.” They drew a line on the map and said, “Don’t cross this line.” Of course what did Americans do? They crossed that line.
Q: What’s special about this new museum? How can students learn from it in unique ways?
A: Throughout the gallery we tell our story through technology, and so in this first room there’s an interactive map designed for school groups that can be controlled by a kiosk and echoes what you’re doing on the monitor on the wall. This interactive shows demographics and British Colonial America in 1763. At the end of the graphics there is a comparison of the population in 1791 after the war is over. You can see populations of people, what the colonies were producing, the boundaries. All these are coordinated with the curriculum in Virginia. The teacher can manipulate the the screen, and everyone can see it.
Q: What else is new?
A: The museum will offer a mobile app where you can choose from nine different tours as you’re going through the gallery. Our living history actors make a rum punch and that will be a video that extends past the bold that you see in front of you and shows visitors then how people made punch and you’ll see the actual bowls (artifacts) from the 18th century. There will be a direct connection between what the visitors are looking at and something we do in our living history area— demonstrating what real people did in the 18th century.
Q: Any information on specific battles?
A: We end up down south because that’s where the definitive battles were fought. We show the war in the south, extensive coverage. Military and social history. Look at maps and you can find out information about specific areas. While the American Revolution was a national event, it’s often perceived in local terms. People are more aware of their region and what happened there than they are in the larger picture of the Revolution. We try to bridge that gap, with information about specific battles seen using an interactive map.
Visit the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown r starting on March 23, 2017 to celebrate the grand opening of the living history complex that is part of the museum experience. Here’s a link to the dates of each “State Day.” I hope to visit on Maryland Day, my state.
Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.