The Siege of Yorktown was a battle that was the turning point in the American Revolution. Visiting the National Park Service Yorktown Battlefield gives one an understanding of where it happened. However, to know and truly understand what happened on this hallowed ground and why it happened, one must visit the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Those were desperate times that caused even George Washington to despair and fear the British would prevail.
The new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is a transformation of the Yorktown Victory Center into a state-of-the-art museum housed in an 80,000 square-foot building containing five theaters, galleries and exhibits, a massive gift shop and a café. Outdoors, there is a re-created Continental Army encampment and a Revolution-era farm to be completed by the Grand Opening Celebration March 23 through April 4, 2017. The museum is open now.
The new museum was created by a collaboration of talented people under the direction of Peter Armstrong. Armstrong is senior director of museum operations and education for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Armstrong was born in England and raised in the shipbuilding town of Newcastle, England. Armstrong has a delightful British accent to prove it. After working for approximately ten years at the National Museum of Arms and Armor, which is also known as the Royal Armories in the Tower of London, Armstrong came to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in 2014. Armstrong lives with his wife, Sue. His children are in college. Armstrong first discovered the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation when he visited in 2007 to set up and exhibit of items loaned to the Foundation as part of a 400th Anniversary commemoration and to deliver a lecture.
It is perhaps Armstrong’s unique perspective being British, that brings a fresh approach to the story of the American Revolution in general and what occurred at Yorktown in particular. He and his team – experts in curatorial and research, exhibit design and media, and historical interpretation – have created an exciting place which vividly brings to life the history of those early days in the birth of our nation. It all starts with the warm and folksy film Liberty Fever, narrated by an early 19th century storyteller who has roamed the countryside gathering stories about the American Revolution from people who lived it. This film sets the stage for a visit to the museum. It also introduces story characters with whom the visitor can identify with and revisit in other parts of the museum. One particularly endearing character is a big lovable shaggy dog that seems to share his master’s love of independence.
The films are shown in unique settings. One is shown in a recreated 18th century print shop. Another is shown in a recreated Red Lion Tavern and yet another is shown in a tent.
In the galleries, there are five major themes presented. In the British Empire and America area, the geography, demography, culture and economy of the colony prior to the Revolution along with the political atmosphere in its relation to Britain are exhibited. The growing displeasure of both America and Britain of their relationship is explored in the Changing Relationship-Britain and North America section of the museum. In the area designated Revolution, the war from the battles of Lexington and Concord all the way to Yorktown in 1781, along with the aftermath of the motivations for the steadfast American perseverance, are demonstrated. The New Nation section reviews the challenges faced by the United States in the 1780s that inspired and lead to the creation of the Constitution. The section known as The American People section explores the emergence of a new national identity after the Revolution. A special inaugural exhibit “AfterWARd,” opening June 10, 2017, will describe the story of veterans of the Siege of Yorktown, and how their lives went on after the war to shape the new nation.
This museum is no dusty old collection of exhibit cases, broken dishes and old moth eaten uniforms. It is a dynamic state-of- the-art collection depicting what many believe to be the most important battle of the American Revolution. Just how the classic battles of the war were fought can be relived on a tabletop battle game where participants can choose sides and fight the battles over again. When the play battle is finished, the actual battle and who won is shown on the tabletop video screen. Just across from the battle game and past the massive cannon is the very special theater where the film Siege of Yorktown is shown.
The film starts out with a normal rectangular movie screen. Then the deafening boom, boom, boom of ship cannons roar, as the screen suddenly shifts to a full 180-degree screen. Smoke spreads across the theater floor, the seats vibrate with each blast and the aroma of coffee, seawater and gunpowder fill the air. The Battle of the Capes signals the start of the Siege of Yorktown. That moment in the film is a thrilling depiction of what took place as the tide of the war turned in favor of America, and the British started on the road to defeat. It all takes place in a new 70-seat immersive theater built at a cost of $4 million.
Beautiful paintings abound in the museum and they bring a face to the famous names of the Revolutionary War. There is an extremely rare portrait of a young African slave named Ayuba Sulieman Diallo. Diallo was an educated man from a wealthy African family who escaped slavery and published his memoirs.
A massive portrait of King George III from the Allan Ramsay studio shows him in all his royal glory. His adversaries are also there. Seeing them helps to humanize those immortal figures. The legendary Marquis de Lafayette is there as is George Washington. Lafayette enjoyed an almost son like relationship with Washington as did an eager young officer named Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton pleaded with Lafayette to grant him the honor of leading the charge at Yorktown. Lafayette brought Hamilton’s request to his dear friend General Washington. In just few moments, Hamilton was ordered to lead the initial charge on October 14th against Redoubt 10. In their book, Washington and Hamilton, authors Stephen F. Knott and Tony Williams describe it thusly, “With bayonets fixed, Hamilton and his men courageously forced their way through a barricade of sharpened sticks. He then leapt onto the shoulders of another man and launched himself onto the enemy parapet with his saber slashing. His forced lined up with the successful French attackers and they established a new trench from which to bombard and assault the British.”
Years later, in 1804, Alexander Hamilton fought a fatal dual with Aron Burr and perished. In 1807, Aron Burr was tried for treason involving his giving secrets to and conspiring with the British. He was acquitted.
There is a life-size statue of Patrick Henry who coined those immortal words: “Give me liberty or give me death.” In one section, there is an original July 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence and a massive statue of George Washington which was formerly exhibited in the U.S. Capitol. Throughout the museum are electronic screens and devices that enhance the experience. All through the galleries visitors will have the opportunity to touch reproductions of some of the 18th century objects on exhibit, including an American Indian gorget (neck decoration) stove plate, cartridge box, a British “Brown Bess” musket and cannon balls. There are touchable displays of tobacco crates, sugar nippers, cowry shells, and shoe buckles. There is also a working stamp embosser which marks paper with a 1765 tax stamp impression and a display of southern American long rifles. To test your knowledge, there are exhibits with questions, with the answers revealed behind sliding panels.
The new American Revolution Museum is filled with interesting exhibits, artifacts and images that will make your visit an exciting excursion into the history of this nation. The facility covers 22 acres. The outdoor Continental Army encampment will make it real. There will be a drill field for visitor participatory demonstrations and a 250-person capacity amphitheater. The amphitheater will feature an array of artillery pieces representing the types of guns used in the 1781 Siege of Yorktown. Guests will learn how to operate these weapons and to observe actual firings. Similar demonstrations of musket firing will also be presented. However, the museum is open now and ready for your visit. The large gift shop is filled with all sorts of souvenirs, books and reproduced memorabilia. A cozy café has some great sandwiches and two kinds of chili.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is a must see for everyone, but especially for youngsters learning their history for the first time. You will, I predict, come away from the experience prouder to be an American whose forebears had the strength, conviction and courage to risk their fortunes, their property and their very lives to gain their freedom and to build our America.
You may obtain complete information online at
www.historyisfun.org or by calling (888) 593-4682 toll free or (757)253-4838. The new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is located just outside of downtown Yorktown. There is lots of parking and a seasonal trolley to take you to the downtown area. Set your GPS to 200 Water Street, Yorktown VA..