Yorktown Museum Overview


WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – “Oh God!  It is all over,” exclaimed British Prime Minister Lord North upon hearing of the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.  For the victorious Americans, it was the dawn of a new era.  Though a treaty officially ending hostilities and recognizing the young United States of America was two years away, the outcome of the American Revolution was determined at Yorktown.

For the past two decades, next to the site of this pivotal event in American history, the Yorktown Victory Center has chronicled the Revolution through gallery exhibits and living history, from the beginnings of colonial unrest to the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, with emphasis on personal stories of the Revolutionary era.  Now the state-operated museum is preparing to embark on its next chapter with an imposing new facility and a reconfigured site plan that allow for expanded gallery exhibits, enhanced outdoor interpretive programming, and a renewed perspective on the meaning and impact of the Revolution. The new museum will be called “American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.”

Camp musket demonstration The Yorktown Victory Center opened in 1976 as one of three Virginia centers for the national Bicentennial and is located adjacent to Yorktown National Battlefield and a short distance from both Jamestown, where America’s first permanent English colonists landed in 1607, and Williamsburg, the 18th-century capital of colonial Virginia.  In its 37 years of continuous operation, the museum has hosted more than five million visitors from across the nation and has served more than 900,000 students with curriculum-based structured educational programs that have been recognized for achieving significant learning gains.

In the early 1990s, the museum’s focus was broadened to encompass events that led to the Revolution and the subsequent formation of a new national government and to interpret the Revolution from diverse points of view and experiences.  A series of structural and exhibit improvements were implemented beginning in 1991.  Former President George H.W. Bush was the keynote speaker in 1995 for the opening of the final phase of these improvements, expressing his wish that “the citizens who visit these wonderful facilities will take with them a renewed sense of optimism and hope.”

Yorktown Victory Center Today

Declaration of Independence gallery At the Yorktown Victory Center today, four main exhibition galleries chronicle events of the period and exhibit hundreds of Revolution-era artifacts:

• “Declaration of Independence” portrays a revolutionary document that inspired decisive action and attracted international attention. A rare July 1776 broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence is on exhibit.

• “Witnesses to Revolution” profiles 10 individuals profoundly affected by the Revolution – two African-American slaves who supported opposite sides, a Mohawk chief who struggled to remain neutral, a Virginia plantation owner loyal to Britain, two Continental Army soldiers, a woman taken captive and adopted by the Seneca tribe prior to the Revolution, and three people who recorded the impact of the war on the homefront.

• “Converging on Yorktown” illustrates the movement of British troops from the south and American and French forces from the north into Virginia in 1781 and describes the three-week siege at Yorktown that resulted in British surrender and ensured American independence.  The gallery features four additional “witnesses” representing the American, French, British and German forces at Yorktown and “A Time of Revolution,” a film that portrays soldiers reflecting on their experiences in the fight for American independence.

• “The Legacy of Yorktown: Virginia Beckons” presents two main themes:  how people from many different cultures, those in Virginia before the 1607 founding of Jamestown and those who arrived later, shaped a new society; and the creation of a new nation through the development of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Outdoors, in a re-created Continental Army encampment, historical interpreters describe and depict the daily life of a regiment of soldiers during the last year of the war, presenting demonstrations of military drills, musket and artillery firing, surgical and medical practices, and the role of the quartermaster in managing troop supplies.  A re-created 1780s farm shows how many Americans lived during the nation’s formative years.  The setting includes a tobacco barn, dwelling, log kitchen, crop field, and vegetable and herb garden.  Visitors can try on a soldier’s uniform or join an artillery crew in the encampment and help water the garden, comb cotton and “break” flax at the farm.

Museum of the Future

New museum exhibit schematic Work has begun on replacing the Yorktown Victory Center on the existing 22-acre site, guided by a master plan adopted in 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the Virginia state agency that operates the museum.

“The 1976 building was designed primarily to serve as a visitor center and has been adapted to serve our evolving needs,” said Foundation Executive Director Philip G. Emerson.  “The master plan addresses long-term exhibit, building and operation issues while presenting an extraordinary opportunity to provide visitors an even more compelling museum experience.

“Our intention,” Emerson said, “is to capture the essence of the American Revolution, the ‘radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people’ described by John Adams in 1818 as ‘the real American Revolution,’ and its importance for the world.”

The plan for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown replaces existing ticketing, gallery and maintenance buildings with one approximately 80,000-square-foot structure positioned on the site to allow for continued operation during construction.

Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., with Hopke & Associates of Williamsburg as associate architect, developed the architectural design for the site and new building.  A link to Yorktown area architecture and a distinct focal point for arriving visitors are key elements of the new museum building, which will include more than 22,000 square feet of permanent gallery space, a 5,000-square-foot special exhibition gallery, a theater and an education center.  With five classrooms and a separate entrance, the center will provide the opportunity for new educational experiences for students of all ages, supporting segments of curriculum-based structured educational programming and serving as a venue for lectures and special educational programs for the general public.

A new film in the museum theater will introduce visitors to the world of Revolutionary America and prepare them for the new galleries and outdoor living-history areas.

New Permanent Galleries Will Dazzle, Inform

Schematic of immersive environment at new museum The permanent exhibition galleries will engage visitors in the tumult, drama and promise of the American Revolution through firsthand encounters with objects made and used by people of the period and an array of sensory experiences – re-created immersive environments, dioramas, interactive exhibits, video presentations and an experiential theater.  Gallagher & Associates of Silver Spring, Md., is exhibit designer for the new permanent galleries, which will be approximately 25 percent more spacious than the Yorktown Victory Center’s existing galleries and will present five major themes:

• “The British Empire and America” examines the geography, demography, culture and economy of America prior to the Revolution and the political relationship with Britain, set on a perilous course by Britain’s determination to exercise greater control over the colonies after the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763.  Gazing on the scene from a full-length portrait is King George III, symbol of British oppression.

• “The Changing Relationship – Britain and North America” details the growing rift between the American colonies and Britain.  Within a full-scale wharf setting, issues of taxation and importation are brought into focus.  As opposition to British measures to tax and control the colonies mounted, the idea of liberty took root.  The Second Continental Congress declared in July 1775 that “[we are] resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.”

• “Revolution” traces the war from the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, to victory at Yorktown in 1781 and the aftermath, and examines the motivations for American perseverance.  Hessian officer Johann Ewald observed of American troops that “one can perceive what an enthusiasm – which these poor fellows call ‘Liberty’ – can do!”

The “Revolution” theme encompasses exhibits about weapons and tactics, military commanders and ordinary soldiers, and the new United States on the world stage.  Battles of the Revolution’s Northern and Southern campaigns will be illustrated through touch-screen computers and scale models.  An experiential theater will transport visitors to the battlefield in Yorktown, with wind, smoke and the thunder of cannon fire.

The wartime homefront will be portrayed in re-created home and town settings that provide a backdrop for the stories of diverse Americans – Patriots and Loyalists, women, Indians, enslaved and free African Americans – as they question, defy or contribute to the Revolutionary War effort.

• “The New Nation” outlines the challenges faced by the United States in the 1780s – weak government under the Articles of Confederation, the unstable postwar economy and new social tensions – culminating with the creation of the Constitution as a framework for the future.  “In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power,” said James Madison, chief author of the Bill of Rights.  “America has set the example … of charters of power granted by liberty.” A film will depict the resolution of many national issues through the Constitution, while others, such as slavery, are delayed for future generations.

• “The American People” explores the emergence of a new nation following the Revolution – influenced by immigration, internal migration, and demographic, political and social changes – and concludes with a snapshot of Americans today.

Living-History Program to Expand

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown site plan provides for significant enhancements to the existing Continental Army encampment and farm.  “These outdoor classrooms bring history alive and allow visitors to make personal connections to the people who founded our nation,” Emerson said.

The encampment will be relocated and expanded, with additional space for musket- and artillery-firing demonstrations and military drills.  The time period of the farm will transition from “1780s” to “Revolutionary War” to more fully complement the new indoor galleries.  Improvements include expansion of the farmhouse and construction of a building representing quarters for enslaved people.  Interpretive programming at both outdoor sites will be linked to gallery themes.

Public-Private Partnership

Portrait of King George III Early planning was funded by state appropriations and revenue generated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Building and exhibit construction and renovations to the site, including living-history areas, are funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia.Total cost of planning and construction is estimated at $50 million. Work started in mid-2012 on building the new museum. W.M. Jordan Company, Inc., of Newport News is construction manager for the first phases of the project, including visitor parking areas, the new facility, and eventual demolition of existing structures.

Gifts and grants from individuals, corporations and foundations are providing critical support for elements of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s gallery and outdoor exhibits – such as acquisition of artifacts for exhibit, production of films, and reproduction items – and for educational resources. Recent acquisitions, all funded with private donations and selected to illustrate specific exhibit themes, include such iconic artifacts as a Declaration of Independence broadside dating to July 1776, an official portrait of King George III in his coronation robes; and a first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the first book to be published by an African American.

“These artifacts, when coupled with multisensory exhibits and hands-on living-history programs, broaden each visitor’s understanding of the past,” Emerson said.  “Presented effectively, artifacts create a physical and emotional link between the visitor and the men and women of 18th-century America.

“The story of the American Revolution is far more than a series of events,” Emerson said.  “This is a guiding principle as we plan the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1795, ‘This ball of liberty … is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe. … It is our glory that we first put it into motion’.”

The Yorktown Victory Center is open daily year-round except Christmas and New Year’s days.  The museum is located in southeastern Virginia, three hours from Washington, D.C., and close to Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg.