Terror, patriotism, the free market, racial equality: It's not farfetched to say that the issues of the American Revolution still obsess us.
Now, with the announcement that a new Museum of the American Revolution will open in 2015 at Third and Chestnut, we will have a place dedicated to sorting them out. "It's a great opportunity to really deepen our understanding of the formative moment," says Daniel Richter, director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "I would hope it would tell a more complicated story than what is currently told. We had many different revolutions, among rich, poor, women, African Americans, Native Americans. These people were involved in a messy process. There were many different winners and losers."
One of the challenges for the museum will therefore be to simultaneously deepen and widen the familiar story of the American Revolution. It must teach while also drawing firm connections to the lives of Americans today.
"The process is more akin to filmmaking then writing a textbook," says Scott Stephenson, the museum's director of collections and interpretations. "People don't go to a museum to go to school."
At the heart of the museum is a collection of more than 2,000 objects mostly amassed in the early 20th century at the Valley Forge Historical Society by the Rev. Herbert Burk. But the vivid collection, which includes the field tent used by George Washington and the original commander-in-chief's standard flag, armaments, paintings, busts, and manuscripts, is heavy on iconic souvenirs of war and light on the grist of revolution.
The question, then, for Stephenson and for Robert A.M. Stern, who was recently named the project's architect, is how to create a museum of national objects that also feels as vitally alive as do the ideas and conflicts of the Revolution itself. "Will they see the objects in the collection as artifacts, or as a starting point for a conversation?" wonders historian Michael Zuckerman, an organizer of the 2013 conference "American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the 21st Century."
"This is an immensely plastic moment in the study of the American Revolution," he says. "The museum could take a leadership role in figuring out what the Revolution means to Americans now."
For that to happen it will have to open itself figuratively and literally to the neighborhood, which teems with diverse and counterintuitive stories of Americans - white and black, patriot and pacifist, radical and loyalist - struggling to forge a new identity.
"We want people to understand the American Revolution not just as a struggle for independence, but as a struggle to remake society in a different way," says Stephenson.
Stern says the museum design will accordingly be "bold." But besides the handsome Comcast Center, little his firm has produced here has felt bold. In fact, just the opposite. The brick high-rise condominium 10 Rittenhouse manages to be at once garish and uninteresting. The McNeil Center for Early American Studies building, which opened in 2006 at 34th and Walnut, was intentionally designed to look like a piece of early America. It comes off as a 1920s neocolonial public school and doesn't make any effort to address the busy, cosmopolitan corner. "Inside it's a splendid and pleasing and appealing building, which works like a charm for our community of scholars," says Zuckerman. "But it's atrocious on the outside."
At the core of the problem is the architect's dependence on a narrow reading of history, and the urban context, to inform the design. Moreover, what is appropriate for an academic center focused on a particular period is not necessarily right for what is hoped to be a broadly engaging public institution. "It's like comparing apples and oranges," says Richter, who is confident in Stern's capacity to translate vision into reality.
"If we do our job well," Stern said when the project was announced, "the Museum of the American Revolution will look like it could never have been built anywhere else but in this hallowed precinct of democracy."
Hallowed it may be, but happily the neighborhood is as architecturally messy, conflicting, and stunningly diverse as the people who forged the Revolution. And for that matter as Americans are today. Within a block of Third and Chestnut: the neoclassical First Bank of the U.S., the behemoth 19th-century buildings of "banker's row" (minus the most inventive of them, Frank Furness' Provident Life & Trust, torn down in 1960), the art deco Custom House, the modernist Constitution Place and Chemical Heritage Foundation, and Venturi Scott Brown's postmodern Benjamin Franklin "ghost house." So what does it mean to look like it belongs?
Stern says he plans to use "the familiar language of traditional Philadelphia architecture: red brick, limestone, possibly wooden windows. ... What is important is that our building will use those familiar elements in an inventive new composition that will seem very much a part of the traditional urban fabric and architectural family of the Independence Hall area."
"To build in brick," Zuckerman responds, "is to capitulate to the idea that the past is back there, and all we can do is look at it."
It's also to make the same mistake as the President's House, the Liberty Bell Center, and the Independence Visitor Center. These buildings attempt to bring history to life through imitation instead of invention.
Stern seems conscious that the American Revolution demands more. "It will be a small building at the foothill of a mountain," he said. Stern was describing the museum's spatial juxtaposition to the muscular Custom House, yet he might have been referring to its metaphoric relationship to the Revolution itself.
The museum, in fact, will be our guide up the mountain - in the ongoing and sometimes conflicting ambition to remake the world. We have to hope it will be engaging enough to lead us there.
For more by the author on the Museum of the American Revolution, go to: http://hiddencityphila.org/2011/11/at-the-foot-of-the-mountain/