By Diana Williams
Yorktown’s new museum goes beyond storing historical artifacts. Instead, it aims to tell the story of the American Revolution in an interactive way that engages learners of all ages. The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown holds its grand opening March 23 – April 4, but visitors are already delighting in the new building that replaces the old Yorktown Victory Center.
The museum features an indoor gallery and an outdoor living-history experience. Both spaces emphasize touching and interacting with the exhibits and the interpreters. Throughout the museum, younger visitors will find opportunities to handle reproductions or touch interactive screens, while older guests can recreate Revolutionary War battles using a touch table.
“Liberty Fever,” a 20-minute film that sets the stage for the overall experience, introduces visitors to the story of the Revolution. In the film, visitors meet five individuals: George Hewes, Billy Flora, Isabella Ferguson, John Howland and Peter Harris. These people all lived during the 18th century and took part in the Revolution. Throughout the museum, opportunities to view this time period through a diverse set of eyes – including women, African Americans (Flora) and Native Americans (Harris) – abound.
Technology is thoughtfully integrated into the exhibits through high-tech touch screens that share details of the museum’s characters. Silhouettes of patriot soldiers “walk” along the halls. Holograms explain strategies. Smoke rises and seats shake during the battles of the “Siege of Yorktown” in the 180-degree experiential theater.
“It was a huge collaboration,” Heather Hower, assistant director of outreach education and special series at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, said about the museum’s interactives. In addition to films produced by Cortina Productions, Hower said foundation staff educators and administrators worked together on both the content and the concepts.
Hower also explained how learning experiences for K-12 students go beyond “reading things on the wall.” From the manipulatives within the museum, to the cooking activities in the outdoor living history area, students are engaged in a multitude of ways. In addition, a section of the museum is devoted to curriculum based educational programming with five classrooms for student groups (which can also be used by the general public).
The outdoor living-history space allows visitors to see the Revolution from the “boots on the ground” perspective of life in an 18th-century military camp or have a true farm-to-table experience at the working 18th-century farm reproduction.
Everything is designed to be hands on. Everything we do – we want folks to try things out, try things on, lend a hand. Wherever you go, the opportunities are there. – Homer Lanier, Interpretive Manager, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Outside, historical interpreter Sally Stook lines up guests to inspect them for military duty. She explains how missing teeth or bleeding gums could indicate scurvy and how pustules on the skin were a sign of smallpox – which easily spread within the small, confined spaces of the Continental Army tents. Once “enlisted,” visitors can observe Revolution-style medicine, cook rations, or prepare the cannon for firing.
At the Revolution-era farm – a reproduction of the Edward Moss family home – visitors can see how the family and their slaves lived during the late 18th century. Historical interpreter Lauren Monarch may be found in the kitchen cooking anything from chess pie (which she describes as pecan pie without the pecans) or egg pie (aka quiche).
Like most spaces devoted to history, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown isn’t meant to be experienced in one day. Instead, museum staff hope you’ll set aside three hours for a visit and then plan to return. Not just to experience the permanent exhibits in a different way, but to take in some of the special exhibits.
One of the ways to spend a three hour visit is to pick a character and follow him or her through the exhibits. For example, a visitor who picks African American Patriot Billy Flora meets Flora in the “Liberty Fever” film. Next, they’d find Flora in the Revolution gallery at the 1775 Battle of Great Bridge in Virginia exhibit. He also appears in the “Personal Stories of the Revolution,” a life size touch screen interactive that uses an actor to portray Flora telling his story.
This year, “AfterWARd,” is one of the special exhibits. It looks at the post-war lives of notable figures – like Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, James Lafayette, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington and Charles Cornwallis – as well as other Revolutionary War veterans. “You’re gonna follow these folks, beyond Yorktown” said Homer Lanier, J-YF’s interpretive manager, “and see what the twist and turns of their lives were.”
With the grand opening rapidly approaching, J-YF staff is putting the finishing touches on a collection of spaces that promises to take museums to the next level and answers the question, as posed by Peter Armstrong, senior director of museum operations and education, “How do we explain the strange thing called freedom and liberty?”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist