Just two blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Museum of the American Revolution draws inspiration from the document voted upon and signed in that building in the summer of 1776. Visitors approaching the main entrance of the museum will see a portion of the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence engraved not on paper, but on stone, on the side of the building. The introductory movie, in a theater on the first floor, highlights key phrases from that second sentence: “truths”, “equal”, “unalienable rights”, “rights of the people”, and, of course, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. In the first gallery, a booming voice declares that “we hold these rights to be self-evident”; moments later, a virtual crowd emerges on screen to tear down a statue of King George III, as actually occurred in New York after news of the Declaration of Independence arrived. Even the gift shop is teeming with magnets, t-shirts, mouse pads and more related to the Declaration.
The Museum of the American Revolution covers political, military, and social history from George to George; that is, from the rule of King George III through the Constitution and the presidency of George Washington. Objects on view range from historical documents to uniforms and flags, muskets and other weapons but also beautifully carved powder horns. Each gallery is uniquely designed to suit the objects; near the display on the Declaration of Independence is a room not unlike Independence Hall, where visitors sit in reproductions of 18th century chairs and watch a movie entitled “Authors of Independence”. Digital and analog combine so that visitors can situate themselves within the historical details through wax figure recreations of iconic scenes as well as detailed touchscreen maps and exhibits.
The Declaration of Independence case in the Museum of the American Revolution has room for two copies of the Declaration. Currently, the two copies on view are two broadsides, one by Ezekiel Russell, the other by Charles Steiner and Melchior Cist. The Russel broadside was distributed throughout Massachusetts; this copy was sent to Ipswich. The Steiner and Cist broadside is in German, and was possibly the first broadside printed after John Dunlap’s.
Just as the words of the Declaration echo through the museum, the presence of Abigail Adams permeates the galleries about independence. Her correspondence with John -- including the famous “Remember the ladies” letter -- provides important context. The “Authors of Independence” movie begins with a recitation of her letter, “I long to hear that you have declared an independancy...”
On the other side of the cylindrical case containing the Declaration of Independence is a small installation on religious freedom. The wall to the left of the Declaration has a large-scale graphic on the design of the Great Seal of the United States – a task first given to Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. One of Ben Franklin’s symbols for a United States, a chain, is laid into the floor, encircling the Declaration of Independence case; this floor design is echoed in a later gallery about the United States Constitution. Smaller cases with copies of state constitutions – including Francis Bailey’s 1784 printing of the Pennsylvania Constitution, John Gill’s 1778 printing of the Massachusetts Constitution, and the 1783 French copy of the Constitutions des Treize Etats-Unis – line the wall behind the Declaration.
As the light fades inside the Declaration of Independence case, eyes are drawn to a golden statue, a recreation of the statue of King George III on horseback, which was torn down in New York City on July 9th after news of the Declaration arrived, melted down, and turned into bullets. This installation exemplifies the museum’s use of old and new technology. When visitors first enter the galleries, they encounter a film introducing the core questions the museum seeks to answer, and watch a still image of the statue of King George III turn almost three-dimensional, as a crowd of re-enactors appears on screen to topple it over. Later, when visitors encounter the physical recreation of the statue, situated above eye level, a wax figure is pulling it to the ground. Below the statue is a case containing fragments of the actual statue of King George III, as well as a ladle and bullet mold. This combination of real artifacts with both physical and digital recreations tells a rich story while simultaneously highlighting the importance of the Declaration of Independence.
Insights from the Experts
Philip Mead, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Historian
The Museum of the American Revolution has several copies of the Declaration of Independence both within their permanent collections and through loans. The current installation, Mead explained, was chosen in order to represent the Declaration in two languages. Having a version of the text in German reminds visitors of the significant German-speaking population in the Philadelphia area in 1776. Mead noted that the documents will be routinely rotated to avoid overexposure, so visitors should keep an eye out for different versions of the Declaration on display! In the future, the museum’s copy of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence, will be on view.
Other Things to See
- Sit in a replica of the Rising Sun chair, and experience recreated rooms from Independence Hall, not just in the “Authors of Independence” space, but also in the exhibit about the British occupation of Philadelphia
- Smell the revolution through interactive installations of tea and tar-coated rope
- Compare Loyalist and Revolutionary stories through a digital installation called “The People Speak”
- View Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of General George Washington, and note that in his diary entry for July 2nd, Peale recorded working on the painting, as independence was declared just a few blocks away
- Get up close and personal with the “Revolutionary Generation” through photographs of people born before 1783; reflect on the “Future Generation" of the American Revolution through visitors’ reflections in mirrors
Plan Your Visit
- Location: 101 South Third Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
- Hours: Daily, 10 am – 5 pm. Extended summer hours from Memorial Day through Labor Day, 9:30 am – 6 pm; closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
- Admission: $19 for adults, $17 for college students and active or retired military with ID on site, $12 for children ages 6 and up, free for children ages 5 and under. All tickets are valid for two consecutive days.