This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Teachers from around the city trickled through the doors of Phialdelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution Wednesday evening to see how the venue might spark interest among their students about this time period.
Some went up the lobby’s grand spiral staircase to explore the museum’s exhibits while others sat in a dining room lined with food and educational games to hear an introduction from Adrienne Whaley, the museum’s manager of School Programs and Partnerships.
Whaley, whose career has taken her to the staff of three other museums before starting at this one last October, was responsible for much of the museum’s interactive components used to engage students. She even enlisted local educators from the Teacher Action Group to get their feedback.
“It’s important for students to be able to connect with folks over the span of time and space,” Whaley said. “At the end of our exhibit there’s a wall of photographs of individuals who lived through the revolutionary eras into the era of photography.”
When entering the museum, students receive cards, each one featuring an obscure historical figure from the time period. The cards display historical figures students would be unlikely to encounter in their history books. Whaley described these figures as “the common people of the revolution.”
Talking with a group of teachers and administrators from AIM Academy, a school in Conshohocken, Pa. that targets students with language-based differences, Whaley gave them their own cards and explained students would be asked to role-play and imagine themselves in the lives of these folks as fisherman, farmers, writers rather than the typical old white men of the American Revolution.
“This might be a way to prime the pump for my students,” said Pat Roberts, executive director of AIM Academy.
Whaley explained that the museum takes a “bottom up” approach to teaching the history of the American Revolution, meaning it focuses on the life of everyday working people, as opposed to the typical top-down approach of learning about the achievements of powerful wealthy men.
Chris Herman, leader of AIM Academy’s high school, who teaches some history courses, said that the diversity of the figures on these cards would be of interest to a lot of his students who aren’t typically excited by this time period.
“You struggle to find women, African American, Native American figures whose lives have been documented” in the typical Revolutionary War curriculum, Herman said.
“They all learn about Washington and Jefferson in school, but the Revolution was much more than those people,” Whaley said. “It was also much more than just the war.”
This spring, the museum’s student groups will get one hour tours, which will be expanded into two-hour tours this Ffall. Groups are advised to schedule for an extra half-hour since tours sometimes run a bit longer than expected.
The extra hour being added to the fall tour will feature more content about race and economics, which is still in the design process.
The large room where Whaley spoke to educators was lined with games for students of all ages. One side of the room was dedicated to arts and crafts with a station to make a blue general’s ribbon like the one worn by Washington, and other tables with an assortment of felt cut outs that students could use to assemble one the many American flags used during the time period.
The other side of the room had games for older students. Two focused on learning techniques used by the Culper Spy Ring to code messages. The Culper Spy Ring was an American spy network that operated during the War of American Independence that provided George Washington with information about British troop movements.
The third game required two students to sit across from each other and take turns asking and answering questions. But these weren’t trivia questions. They had qualitative, at times even philosophical, answers.
One question began by explaining that many colonists boycotted British goods to protest tax policy and those who refused to boycott were often criticized and threatened by other colonists. The question asks “how do you think people who disagree with the majority should be treated?”
A cloth tent, a replica of those used by the Revolutionary soldiers, stood at the back of the room, where students practiced fitting six people into the tiny space to sleep just like the soldiers.
Next to it was a rack of soldier uniforms. This was the main attraction for the visiting teachers, who would periodically shout out and rush over to it in large groups to don coats and hats and pose with wooden muskets.
“Oh my god, this thing is heavy,” said one teacher as she put on the thick brown coat. “Is this the actual weight of them?”
“Yep,” said a nearby staff member. “They’re designed to be roughly the same as the real ones.”
Upstairs, teachers roamed through the four interwoven exhibits. The first focuses on the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, two more tell the stories of the first and second half of the war itself, and the last exhibit is about what life was like for colonists after the war was over.
Young staffers stationed throughout the exhibits cheerfully answered questions that educators had about the museum and its contents.
One teacher asked if they tailored certain content for specific grade levels. The staffer explained that the museum was for all ages, but guides are trained to give different levels of background knowledge depending on how much students have already learned about the time period.
Whaley said most 21st century students see the Revolutionary War as a static event with an obvious outcome.
“For the folks on these character cards, no one knew what the outcome of the war was going to be,” Whaley said. “We want students to feel that sense of tension.”
The Museum of the American Revolution opened April 19 at 101 S. Third St. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the summer). Tickets: $19, adults; $12, children 6-18; free for children 5 and under; all tickets good for two consecutive days’ admission. Information: 215-253-6731 or www.amrevmuseum.org.