Storm clouds threaten the sunny skies over lower Manhattan as a crowd surges against a pedestal bearing a statue of a man on a horse. Curious, you pause, then inch closer. You hear voices rising in anger. What’s going on? You notice several men tugging on the ropes they’ve lassoed around the animal and its rider. The bronze horse begins to rock back and forth, gently at first, then more vigorously. “Tear that down!” someone shouts. A giant thud indicates sudden success. Thunderous drumbeats punctuate the victory.
The tumultuous toppling depicted in this video may seem relevant to our times, but it’s July 9, 1776, and the statue is not of a Civil War general but of England's King George III. This reenactment of an incident sparked by one of the first public readings of the newly adopted Declaration of Independence serves as the opening salvo for the core exhibition of Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution (MAR). It poses the central question that sets the stage for the rest of your visit: How do ordinary people reach the brink, the tipping point, that turns them into revolutionaries?
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Situated in the midst of many of the buildings in which the founding fathers laid out the principles that would guide a new republic, the museum fills a long-recognized gap by exploring how the colonists arrived at that place in history. “Our historic neighborhood is like a piece of jewelry,” says R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s president and CEO. “There are all of these disparate precious stones — there’s Independence Hall and Christ Church and the First Bank — and we act as the setting for the piece. We’re what connects and intertwines those gems to make a beautiful whole.”
COVID-19 Update: You'll need to purchase timed-entry tickets, preferably in advance online. Face coverings are required for staff and all visitors older than 5. The Battlefield Theater and Revolution Place, a discovery center for children, are closed. Guided tours are limited to five guests per tour. Check the museum's website for its latest health and safety measures.
The MAR opened four years ago as an expansion and re-envisioning of a much smaller collection that resided for decades at Valley Forge, not far from the city. Inside its sprawling neo-Georgian building are thousands of artifacts contributing to the backstory of why the colonists eventually grew so dissatisfied with English rule. Items from the mid-18th century, such as a cast-iron fireplace fireback and a tall grandfather clock, sporting royal emblems and commemorating British heroes, offer evidence of the allegiance initially felt by the colonists for the mother country. But by the mid-1760s, the relationship had changed and the objects on display reflect that. Britain had acquired more land and passed the Stamp Act — which imposed a tax on paper documents such as the newspaper showcased in one glass case — to raise money so it could “protect” its ever-expanding territory. You begin to understand the resentment that’s about to roil over.
And you know what happens next.
The phrase that becomes a central rallying cry is evoked: No taxation without representation! As you move through the exhibits you find yourself in Boston, where the resistance is fomenting. In the gallery’s center, a stylized re-creation of an elm that was known as the Liberty Tree reaches up to the rafters. Liberty trees served as symbols and gathering places for burgeoning revolutionaries. Go ahead and slide your hand across a cutout in this massive prop. It exposes an actual fragment of wood salvaged from a 400-year-old tulip poplar — the last surviving Liberty Tree — that stood in Annapolis, Maryland, until 1999.
Soon, the “shot heard around the world” is fired in the battles of Lexington and Concord, just outside of Boston, and the colonists are at war with Britain. Several types of weaponry used that April day in 1775 are displayed, including an American-made bird-hunting gun and a powder horn, objects that forge a link with their owners to flesh out their stories.
Varied cast of participants
“Our unofficial tagline is ‘you don’t know the half of it,’” says Stephenson, “and for us that means broadening the story’s scope to include a very diverse cast of characters.” So, yes, you’ll venture through deadly battles and take deep dives into the crafting of the Declaration of Independence. You'll find yourself reliving the era’s familiar adages and actions — and encountering the iconic heroes responsible for them. Some tea is dumped in a harbor, the times try men’s souls, without liberty one man will choose death.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 101 S. Third St.
Getting there: MAR is in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood in Center City, near attractions such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. It does not have parking, but numerous garages and lots are within short walking distance, including the Bourse Parking Garage (400 Ranstead St.) and Parkway Corporation (38 S. 2nd St.).
Visit: Thursday-Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Sept. 6. Also, it will temporarily open daily June 24-July 12, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Admission: Adults $21; $18 for adults 65 and older. Tickets are good for the selected date and the following day, based on availability.
Best time to visit: On a Thursday or Monday, when it attracts fewer visitors.
Best season to visit: During the city’s multiday Fourth of July celebrations, which include fireworks displays, outdoor concerts and re-enactments. This year, the MAR itself promises several special lectures and presentations, as well as a new summer exhibition showcasing dozens of rare American flags alongside historic early state constitutions.
Accessibility: The main entrance doors open automatically when activated. Inside, elevators are available, as are manual wheelchairs (no charge; first come, first served), touch guides and audio tours. Films are close-captioned.
But, again and again, you’ll be introduced to those whose participation in the creation of the modern world’s first democracy are not as well-known. They include many women, Native Americans and enslaved Africans.
So, stop and spend some time on the little things. Note, for instance, an engraving from the early 1770s that’s modestly titled “Phillis Wheatley, Negro servant.” The image was pulled from Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first published book of poetry by an African American author, which is exhibited nearby. She wrote it while enslaved, though she was later emancipated and married a free Black man.
At the end of the core exhibit, you’re treated to an abundance of such inspiring souls, thanks to a salon-style wall of mid-19th century sepia-toned photographs. Peering at the aged visages of women in lace bonnets and the solemn miens of men in elaborate neckwear, you stand face to face with the ordinary folk of all creeds and races who lived through the protracted and fiery Revolutionary War. Every one of them has a story, too, you realize. Every one of them was a part of the history that now defines all of us. Every one of them could be you.
Director’s tip: “I still talk with visitors who missed seeing the presentation of Washington’s tent,” says CEO Stephenson. “It’s a must-see experience, so save time for it.” The general really did sleep in this scalloped-edged linen tent that also served as his day-to-day Valley Forge office. A 12-minute video in the Alan B. Miller Theater across from the core exhibit’s exit details the tent’s story through the centuries that followed, then audience members enjoy a brief but theatrical glimpse of the fragile artifact.
Several buildings from the Revolutionary War era, loosely grouped under the umbrella of Independence National Historic Park, surround the MAR, as do several museums that explore aspects of that history. Here, three not to miss.
Independence Hall: Who doesn’t want to be in the room where it happened? Put yourself in the very place where our founding fathers debated, wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Liberty Bell: There’s no more meaningful symbol of our nation’s freedom than this icon. And, yes, it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.
National Constitution Center: Learn about and celebrate the U.S. Constitution through interactive programs and exhibits.
Valley Forge National Historical Park: Drive about 25 miles northwest of the city to the 1777-78 winter encampment of Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army. You can wander its 3,500 acres of meadows, monuments and woodlands, but the Visitors Center and Washington’s headquarters remain closed due to COVID-19 while park officials work on a staged reopening.
Brandywine Battlefield Park (temporarily closed): Around 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia, visit the site where the war’s largest land battle erupted in early 1777.
Where to Stay
Splurge: Less than two miles west of the MAR, and just a short walk from the city’s major art museums, British architect Norman Foster designed the new 219-room Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center. Its bar and dining options come courtesy of Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and local wunderkind Chef Greg Vernick. Rooms from $550
Save: The recently remodeled, 152-room Renaissance Philadelphia Downtown is conveniently located just a block from the MAR in Old City. Rooms from $160
Where to Dine
Splurge: The kitchen at Fork serves up sophisticated new American cuisine in a serene setting a block north of the museum. Try the grilled mackerel or the duck breast, and don’t pass on the Parker House rolls.
Save: For an Irish pub with flair, head one block east of the museum to the Plough & the Stars for all of the palette-pleasing staples you’d expect — beer-battered bangers, shepherd’s pie — in a warm and elegant setting. If you’re especially charmed, you might be around when the live Irish music gets going.