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.

camp-musket-demonstration-300x224 For nearly four 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. Now the state-operated museum is embarking 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 Revolution as the gateway to modern America. The new museum, opening in late 2016 as the “American Revolution Museum at Yorktown,” will convey a sense of the transformational nature and geographical scale of the American Revolution – from Canada to Florida to the banks of the Mississippi and beyond North America – and the richness and complexity of the nation’s revolutionary heritage.

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.

Museum of the Future

YVC exhibit schematic design - experiential theater web Work is well underway on replacing the Yorktown Victory Center on the existing 22-acre site, guided by a master plan adopted 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 was adapted over time to accommodate our evolving needs,” said Foundation Executive Director Philip G. Emerson. “The master plan has presented an extraordinary opportunity to provide visitors an even more compelling museum experience to complement Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown Battlefield and other attractions in Virginia’s Jamestown-Williamsburg-Yorktown Historic Triangle, strengthening the area’s prominence as one of the nation’s premier American Revolution destinations.

“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, allowing for the Yorktown Victory Center to remain in operation throughout construction, includes a new 80,000-square-foot facility housing exhibit space, classrooms, visitor services and support functions; reconstruction and enhancement of the living-history Continental Army encampment and Revolution-era farm; outdoor event space; and new parking areas. Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., 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, featuring 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 provides 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 educational programs for the general public.

A new film to be shown in the museum theater, “Liberty Fever,” produced by Cortina Productions of McLean, Va., will introduce visitors to the world of Revolutionary America. Cortina also is producing media components for the galleries.

New Permanent Galleries Will Dazzle, Inform

Exhibit-schematic-immersive-environments-300x186 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, and Design and Production of Lorton, Va., is exhibit fabricator for the new permanent galleries, which 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. This relationship was 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 rule.

• “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 Americans actively seeking liberty took root.

• “Revolution” traces the war from the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 to victory at Yorktown in 1781 and the aftermath, and examines the motivations for American perseverance. Placed in the center of the space is an exhibit on the Declaration of Independence, which includes a very early printing of this document.

The “Revolution” theme encompasses exhibits about weapons and tactics, military commanders and ordinary soldiers, and the new United States on the world stage. An experiential theater will transport visitors to the Yorktown battlefield in 1781, with wind, smoke and the thunder of cannon fire. The wartime homefront will be portrayed in re-created three-dimensional settings that provide a backdrop for the stories of diverse Americans – Patriots and Loyalists, women, 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. 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 national identity following the Revolution – influenced by immigration, internal migration, and demographic, political and social changes. This section explicitly compares and contrasts America after the Revolution with America before the Revolution, and shows how our nation’s struggle for independence impacted not just America, but the world.

Vibrant Living-History Program Complements Gallery Experience

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown site plan provides for significant enhancements to the Continental Army encampment and Revolution-era 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, the first area visitors will come to after leaving the museum building, will be triple its previous size and will include a separate drill field for hands-on tactical demonstrations and a separate artillery area with tiered seating that from the outside looks like a redoubt. The encampment represents a portion of an American regiment and includes soldiers’ tents and officers’ quarters, with regimental features such as quarters for a colonel, surgeon and quartermaster.

The farm will be located just beyond the encampment and adapted to reflect recent archaeological and documentary research. A specific 18th-century York County family has been identified to serve as a frame of reference for historical interpretation. The farmhouse, kitchen and tobacco barn will be replaced with larger structures, and a log building with a simple chimney and storage pit will be constructed to represent quarters for enslaved people. The farm also will contain a corncrib, work shed, crop fields, kitchen garden and orchard.

Guernsey Tingle Architects of Williamsburg, Va., is architect for the encampment and farm as well as other outdoor elements of the new museum, including a pavilion to assist visitors with the transition from indoor galleries to the outdoor living-history experience, an event lawn and a picnic area.

Public-Private Partnership

King George portrait Work on the site began in mid-2012, and a cornerstone dedication on May 10, 2013, formally launched the project. W.M. Jordan Company, Inc., of Newport News is construction manager for the first phases, including visitor parking areas, the new facility, and demolition of pre-existing structures. Museum operations transitioned to the new building in March 2015, followed by continued development of new gallery exhibits, the introductory film, and outdoor amenities and living-history areas, all planned for completion by late 2016, when the name “American Revolution Museum at Yorktown” will be implemented.

Planning, building and exhibit construction, and renovations to the site, including living-history areas, are funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Major components of the project total approximately $50 million. Gifts and grants from individuals, corporations and foundations to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., 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; a June 1776 Pennsylvania Gazette printing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which directly influenced the composition of the U.S. Declaration of Independence; an official portrait of King George III in his coronation robes; one of the earliest known portraits done from life of an African who had been enslaved in the British colonies that became the United States; 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 build 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.