Capturing all the drama of the American Revolution
09/21/2017 03:37PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
R. Scott Stephenson fell in love with history as a child, and the past has never left him.
“I grew up in Pittsburgh, and some of my earliest memories are of my grandfather never wanting to take the highway anywhere,” Stephenson said during an interview at his Landenberg home. “He always wanted to take a back road and he always had a story about what happened in history at this or that spot. I always wanted to hear about the ancestors.”
He attended Juniata College as a history and international studies major, with a goal of becoming a lawyer, but his passion for the past steered him to the University of Virginia, where he got his Ph.D. in American history.
“I did a lot of work in archaeology in high school in western Pennsylvania. I always loved museums and what we now call public history,” he said. “Back in the early '90s, there was a proposal by Disney to build 'Disney's America,' a theme park on the Manassas Battlefield. All that controversy was raging at the time. There was an article in an academic journal that was a clarion call for academically trained historians to learn the interpretive techniques of filmmakers and designers. I thought that was an interesting idea.”
The idea that history is best observed behind glass in a museum was being altered by a public that needed to be engaged by experiences, and Stephenson wanted to make others share his passion for bringing the past to vivid life.
“I had friends at Colonial Williamsburg, and I started getting involved with programs down there,” he said. “I worked on 'The Last of the Mohicans,' with Daniel Day-Lewis. I did everything from being the historian who tells you what you ought to do on set, to writing scripts and working in production.”
He helped put together a traveling exhibit called “Clash of Empires” to mark the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War, and also consulted on a four-hour PBS series called “The War that Made America,” which dealt with the American Revolution.
“My wife is a child neurologist and is now at CHOP Brandywine, so we were living in Landenberg in 2006,” Stephenson said. “The 'Clash of Empires' exhibit had just opened at the Smithsonian, and I was driving back from Washington thinking, 'Wonder what I'm going to do next?'
“As soon as I got home, I got a phone call from a little two-person organization in Valley Forge called the National Center for the American Revolution, which was trying to build a museum, initially up in Valley Forge. I stumbled into it. I was the third employee of what is now over 100 employees at the museum that's in Philadelphia. It turned into a bigger thing than I ever imagined.”
The route to building a museum for the Revolution was a twisting one. “We often call ourselves a 100-year-old startup,” Stephenson said, laughing.
The founder of the historical society was the Rev. Herbert Burk, a collector who had assembled a treasure trove of items associated with the Revolutionary War. But there was no proper place to display the items in Valley Forge Park. Burk died in 1933 and much of his collection remained in storage, occasionally seeing the light of day in the Valley Forge Chapel, but lacking a permanent home.
In the 1990s, the chapel gave land in the park to the historical society for a future museum, “but that never worked out,” Stephenson said. Eventually, in 2009, the Department of the Interior and the Park Service worked out a land exchange. We had acquired land that was adjacent to Valley Forge Park, and we swapped that 78 acres with the old visitors center that had been built for the Bicentennial but then replaced by the visitor center that's by the Liberty Bell.”
The site, at Third and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia, was at the east end of the park holding Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center. “We actually own the site, which is fabulous,” Stephenson said. “It's two blocks from Independence Hall. But it was a little tired down there when we started. Much of the recent redevelopment in the park had been done between Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. Building the museum at Third and Chestnut streets creates an anchor on the east end of the park, helping to draw visitors down to Independence Seaport Museum and Penn's Landing. It's already revitalized that area.”
While the old visitors center was worn out, its location was a remarkable stroke of luck for the founding of the Museum of the American Revolution. Stephenson saw the potential for linking the places where America was born with a museum documenting the struggle that formed the new nation.
“There were a lot of little jewels down there in the neighborhood, but there wasn't a place that created a narrative to link them all together,” he said. “One way to think of us is a visitor center for the American Revolution. Now, people can see how all these sites relate to one another.”
Public knowledge of the American Revolution is not as detailed as it should be, Stephenson said. “It's taught a little bit in fourth or fifth grade, and maybe middle school, but you can get through high school and college and not take another American history course. Certainly not about the Revolutionary era. So we can't assume that people arrive at the museum with the facts, or a narrative. The good thing is that there is still an American cultural imperative. People know they should visit Philadelphia and see the bell and the hall at the least. People feel it's important to connect to what it means to be American. There's still 2 to 3 million visitors to that neighborhood every year.”
Stephenson was directly involved in the layout of the new museum, and worked closely with exhibit design firms – the third firm was a keeper, he said – on making the museum wrap around a visitor, with twists and turns that echo the uncertainty of the Revolution itself. There is a surround-sound theater experience that shows visitors the roar and chaos of battle. Visitors can handle pieces of a soldier's uniform, sit in a copy of George Washington's “Rising Sun” chair, and use digital technology to explore key moments in history.
At the end of the visitor's experiences, there is a multi-media show that culminates with the revealing of George Washington's war tent – the linen tent which served as his office and sleeping quarters during most of the war.
The tent was passed down through the centuries with all the twists and turns of a mystery novel – from Martha Washington's grandson to the family of Robert E. Lee, a period of storage beginning in the Civil War, and the sale of the tent by Mary Custis Lee to Rev. Burk, who purchased it in 1909 with $5,000 raised from donations sent in by ordinary Americans.
Stephenson marvels at the chain of events that led to the tent being painstakingly preserved and put on display at the Museum of the American Revolution. “It was in a box, in storage,” he said. “For 10 years, it was rolled up in acid-free containers. We had to do a lot of conservation on it to prepare it for display. It's a miracle it's survived.
“There's a letter from 1831 from Robert E. Lee to his father-in-law, saying, 'I've seen the tent on display and it looks great, and I told them not to put the lanterns too close to it,'” he said, mentioning only one of the ways the tent could have been destroyed or lost.
After restoration and mounting on a framework that doesn't stress the material, the tent, Stephenson said, has become “a metaphor for the memory of the American Revolution and George Washington. It's those ideas that bubble up from the American Revolution that we go back to. When you see the tent, we tell the story of the Revolutionary War, but we also trace its history up to the early 20th century.”
Since the opening of the museum in April, the audience reaction to the whole experience has been gratifying, Stephenson said.
“After every single show, there are people walking out with tears running down their faces,” he said. “Vice President Biden sat next to me on the day that the museum opened and we watched the show together. He came out and spent five minutes telling the press it was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen. I've had museum directors come out and say they cried.”
The whole museum experience “is like a movie you can walk through,” Stephenson said. “There are dramatic arcs, there are noisy places, small places, there are surprises as you turn a corner.”
The museum's location in Philadelphia is a natural tie-in with the Battle of Brandywine. “For our visitors in Philadelphia, we picked a site that's within driving distance,” Stephenson said. “We tell them they can drive an hour and stand in a place where this really happened.”
An original film shot last summer at the Cheslen Preserve dramatizes what the battle was like, with reenactors playing the opposing troops. “We dramatize the fighting around the Birmingham Meetinghouse. I've always been intrigued by the Battle of Brandywine. We worked really hard to recreate the exact topography, the time of day, the details of the clothing – everything you would have seen if you were standing there on Birmingham Hill in the late afternoon of Sept. 11, 1777.”
If Stephenson was able to time-travel, he said, “I'd want to parachute in there – and stay out of harm's way, of course – to check if we got all the details right.”
Stephenson has uncovered an ancestor who was on the British side at the Battle of Brandywine, and one on the American side, so his connection to the Revolution is that much stronger.
The outcome of the Revolution, he said, was never a sure thing. In 1778, a commission from Britain “basically offered the fledgling United States that if they would just acknowledge the sovereignty of King George III, we would essentially have Commonwealth status. We could have been independent in everything except name. We would just have to keep the royal crest on the currency. It wasn't even seriously considered.
“In the 1780s, we were at the end of our tether,” Stephenson continued. “There were people who thought that perhaps the South would be split off. Early in the war, the revolutionaries designed currency that had an image of a crane, which symbolized America, being attacked by an eagle, symbolizing Britain. The crane's on its back, piercing the breast of the eagle with its beak, and in Latin it says, 'The Outcome is Uncertain.' In our collection, we have a soldier's musket that has that design engraved on it. There's an officer's sword belt with that on it as well. They themselves felt that nothing was certain about the way this would turn out. That's why, as you go through the exhibits in the museum, we emphasize those turning points. We break through the simple narrative that we learn in school.”
As someone who has immersed himself in the colonial and Revolutionary War era, Stephenson said that his long days at the Museum of the American Revolution could not be a better fit.
“I literally have the perfect job,” he said with a laugh. “I really do.”
For more information, visit www.AmRevMuseum.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.