Period Artifacts Combine With Sensory Experiences to Tell a Compelling Story of the American Revolution
YORKTOWN, Va. – Iconic artifacts of the American Revolution and early national periods acquired in recent years for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown are among close to 500 objects on exhibit in the 22,000-square-foot permanent exhibition galleries opened October 15, 2016.
Along with immersive environments, dioramas, interactive exhibits and short films, period artifacts engage visitors in the story of the American Revolution, from its origins in the mid-1700s to the early years of the new United States. The galleries, where visitors first encounter a rare first-model “Brown Bess” British infantry musket dated 1741 and a rare early American long rifle – two remarkable survivals from the era of the nation’s birth – present five major themes.
The British Empire and America examines the geography, demography, culture and economy of America prior to the Revolution and the impact of the Seven Years’ War, which ended in 1763 and resulted in expansion of Britain’s territory in North America and efforts to compel the North American colonies to help pay the war’s costs. A coronation portrait of King George III from the studio of Allan Ramsay symbolizes British rule. A portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, one of the two earliest known portraits done from life of an African who had been enslaved in the 13 British colonies that became the United States, and a New York-made gorget with a silver bear symbol, probably used in diplomacy or trade with the Iroquois, show the complexity and diversity of colonial American society.
The Changing Relationship – Britain and North America describes rising tensions between the American colonies and chronicles the growing rift, from the Stamp Act of 1665 to the First Continental Congress in 1774. Within a full-scale wharf setting – including a Red Lion Tavern that serves up a short film – issues of taxation and British economic control are brought into focus. Among artifacts on exhibit are an English-made firing glass and silver teaspoons inscribed with symbols of liberty and a document box embossed with the gilded text “Stamp Act Rep ͩ/March 18, 1766.”
Revolution traces the war from the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 to victory at Yorktown in 1781 and the aftermath. A rare July 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence, adopted more than a year after fighting began, is on display near a June 1776 Philadelphia printing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, one of the inspirations for the U.S. Declaration.
Two early American victories – the 1775 Battle of Great Bridge in Virginia and the 1777 Battle of Saratoga in New York, a turning point that led to a formal alliance with France – are highlighted in a diorama and a short film. A portrait medallion of Benjamin Franklin produced in 1777 while Franklin was serving as an American representative in France is exhibited near a small oval portrait of Louis XVI painted during the king’s reign.
By late 1778, Britain concentrated its military operations on the Southern states. A miniature portrait of General Daniel Morgan, renowned for defeating the British at the Battle of Cowpens in 1781, is on exhibit. Sporadic conflicts between Britain and America and its allies occurred even after the momentous Siege of Yorktown, an event recounted in an experiential theater that transports visitors to the battlefield with wind, smoke and the thunder of cannon fire. Artifacts from the Betsy, a British supply ship scuttled during the siege, on long-term loan from Virginia Department of Historic Resources, are displayed next to the theater. An eyewitness painting, “Lord Rodney’s flagship ‘Formidable’ breaking through the French line at the battle of the Saintes, 12th April 1782,” depicts action during a three-day sea battle that occurred six months after the American victory at Yorktown.
The wartime homefront is portrayed in three-dimensional settings that provide a backdrop for the stories of diverse Americans – Patriots and Loyalists, women, and enslaved and free African Americans. Benjamin Thompson, an American Loyalist who moved to Europe after the war and became a noted scientist, is the subject of a 1785 portrait. This section also explores how the Revolution impacted the lives of Mary Katherine Goddard, a printer whose January 1777 copy of the Declaration of Independence was the first to contain the typeset names of all the signatories, and Benjamin Banneker, a free African American who became famous in the 1790s as a scientist and writer.
The New Nation takes the story of America forward from the 1783 Treaty of Paris recognizing the United States as an independent nation with boundaries extending to the Mississippi River. Recognition of the need for a stronger national government than provided by the Articles of Confederation adopted during the Revolution led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the formation in 1789 of the national government that continues to today, a story that unfolds in a short film. Nearby is a 19th-century life-size statue of George Washington formerly exhibited at the U.S. Capitol, along with an assemblage of artifacts associated with the nation’s first president. A Wedgwood antislavery medallion and other artifacts speak to growing public opposition to slavery.
The American People explores the emergence of a distinctive national identity following the Revolution, influenced by immigration, internal migration, and demographic, political and social changes. Emblematic of the new nation are an American-made sword whose silver pommel is in the form of an eagle and an early 19th-century sandstone marker – carved with an eagle, stars and the word “Liberty” – from a ferry house that once stood along the Cumberland Road. The exhibition concludes with a look at how the example of America has influenced the world.
Gallagher & Associates of Silver Spring, Md., is exhibit designer for the new galleries. Design and Production of Lorton is exhibit fabricator. Cortina Productions of McLean produced gallery media components. Artifacts on exhibit are largely from the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, acquired with private gifts to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc.