Experiencing the Revolution

Published 5:06 pm Tuesday, July 23, 2019

short rows header

I’ve heard it said twice in the past few days. “I went there years ago.” Well, no, they didn’t.

That comment came from people to whom I had mentioned the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, where Anne and I spent a delightful three hours recently.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

A lot of people, I have discovered, think the Victory Center that they visited decades ago is the current Yorktown museum. It isn’t, not by a country mile. It’s been replaced by an incredibly entertaining and informative indoor/outdoor history lesson designed to delight as well as inform.

The Victory Center was a small museum built on property west of the Yorktown Bridge back in 1976 as part of Virginia’s celebration of the national bicentennial. We carried our kids to visit soon after it opened, and it was very nice — nice, but limited in scope and by the technology that was available four decades ago.

The American Revolution Museum replaced the Victory Center just over two years ago. It is owned and operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which is also the owner of Jamestown Settlement (where the fort and three ships are located).

The Yorktown facility is impressive by most any measure. The state-of-the-art indoor museum is an 80,000-square-foot structure encompassing vastly expanded exhibition galleries, two theatres and classrooms for special programs.

Two films, shown in rotation regularly when the museum is open, are creative and totally different from one another.

The introductory film is a narrative in which the major events of the American Revolution are told a speaker dressed in early 1800s clothing, backed up by an 18th century “stick” show and movie reenactments. The story is presented as being “only a generation ago.”

The second film is an in-the-round, up-close view of the Battle of the Chesapeake between the French and British navies, as well as the Yorktown siege and eventual surrender. Its special effects include vibrations from the cannon fire and smoke from the constant barrage. It’s a truly impressive experience.

Out in the main hallway is a pile of Revolutionary War coats that families can don and photograph themselves in. No supervision, no rules. Just don’t haul them home. Nearby are real Revolutionary War swords, safely encased in Plexiglas but situation so that young visitors can grip their handles and thus feel the real thing. It’s that kind of museum.

For the historic artifact lover, there are the matching Lafayette carried in battle and the Treaty of Paris, on loan from the National Archives.

And that’s only the indoor segment. Outside, there is a full-blown army encampment with costumed American soldiers as well as regular demonstrations in musket drill and cannon firing.

And, finally, there’s the farm. The foundation has built a modest 18th century farmhouse, adjoining kitchen, tobacco barn and slave quarters, and around them has planted a large garden and small demonstration tobacco field.

Finally — and this is important — this is not “Virginia History” as we learned it decades ago. It’s an honest portrayal of the way things were. There’s an impressive display chronicling the contributions of enslaved and free African Americans to both sides of the Revolution and a forthright acknowledgement of the poor treatment they received in exchange.

There is a very objective view of the English perspective, in which statesmen wrestled with a colonial system that was often more costly than profitable, and there are brief narrated stories from the everyday people who shouldered the long struggle for freedom.

This incredible facility is best described in the slogan used by the foundation — “History is Fun.” That sums up this delightful facility. And, incidentally, just type in historyisfun on your computer and take a look for yourself. But don’t just read about it. Go. It’s more than worth your time.