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Ken Burns receives Lenfest Award from Revolution Museum

Burns says he has a documentary of the American Revolution in the works.

Filmmaker Ken Burns,named recipient of the 2019 Lenfest Award by the Museum of the American Revolution. Photo: Evan W. Barlow
Filmmaker Ken Burns,named recipient of the 2019 Lenfest Award by the Museum of the American Revolution. Photo: Evan W. BarlowRead morePhoto: Evan W. Barlow

The filmmaker Ken Burns has been named recipient of the 2019 Lenfest Spirit of the American Revolution Award by the Museum of the American Revolution.

It's an honor with an edge, he said.

"It's a tremendous honor — but it's bittersweet because we lost Gerry," Burns said from his New Hampshire office. Philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, who died in August, inspired and seeded the award that bears his name.

Gen. John P. Jumper, the museum's board chair, called Burns, 65, "America's storyteller," whose filmmaking on historical topics "has inspired millions, from all ages and all walks of life, to learn more about our nation's complex and dramatic history, emotionally connecting us to our nation through the artistry of his informative storytelling."

Burns will be presented with an engraved medal and a $25,000 prize at a private event at the museum on April 11, 2019.

Lenfest, who had been the museum's chairman emeritus, created the award to recognize distinguished achievement in advancing public awareness and understanding of history and of its relevance in American life.

Burns' award-studded career began in 1981 with the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge —  based on the history of the bridge written by David McCullough, the first Lenfest Award recipient (in 2016).

>> READ MORE: David McCullough receives inaugural Lenfest award

Over the ensuing decades, Burns has directed and produced documentaries including The Civil War, Baseball, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Jackie Robinson, The Vietnam War, and, most recently, The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science.

But he has never taken on the American Revolution.

He has teased the edges with a film about the Shakers (narrated by McCullough), a religious sect "born in the fires" of political and religious awakening in England and the United States in the 18th century, and another film on Thomas Jefferson.

Both presented the revolutionary zeitgeist, and, in the case of Jefferson, a major revolutionary figure. But the revolution itself was not the focus of either work.

Burns said he is now mapping out a big American Revolution project.

"We plan to do for the American Revolution what we did for the Civil War and what we did for the Second World War and most recently for the Vietnam War," Burns said.

>>READ MORE: Two Philly-area veterans help bring PBS's 'Vietnam War' home

He continued: "We're so woefully ignorant of our past, and most people's knowledge of the actual revolution is confined to Lexington and Concord and Washington crossing the Delaware, and then for some reason Cornwallis surrendering in Virginia. People have no idea of what took place.

"It was as bloody a war proportionate to the population as any war we've had. Families were torn apart."

Inspiration for the upcoming project, Burns said, came during the making of his Vietnam series. Looking at a computer-generated map of the Ia Drang Valley and watching a camera "descending from the clouds and then" moving through the graphic rendering of the valley, Burns said he realized he could "could communicate the complexity" of the American Revolution in similar fashion.

He could "see" troops "moving west along Long Island and American positions dissolving from Brooklyn Heights and then from Kips Bay in Manhattan  and  Harlem in Manhattan, and then from White Plains up in Westchester County, and then the army bursting into New Jersey, where it really did matter where George Washington slept and how he kept the army together."

>> READ MORE: The Museum of the American Revolution: American Tenacity on Display

Multiple other projects are in the works, but the revolution has definitely taken its place in line.

ZeeAnn Mason, the chief operating officer of the museum, said Burns was selected as the awardee by a committee of the museum board members. The award, she said, recognizes achievement that advances public knowledge of history, especially history related to concepts central to American democracy.

It is not, she said, a popularity contest.

Burns, she said, operates on "a very large scale" in connecting people to the past, and his documentaries have had "a tremendous impact."