August 28, 2009 / 10:07 AM / 8 years ago

Philly museum to tell story of American Revolution

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - In an unmarked warehouse on the outskirts of Philadelphia, two blue cardboard boxes contain some of the great treasures of the American Revolution.

The boxes are the unlikely repository for George Washington’s tent, which the first U.S. president used during his army’s battles against the British between 1777 and 1781.

Next to a drab row of metal cabinets a few feet away are two gleaming silver drinking cups inscribed with the large letter ‘W’ that were made for Washington. On a table nearby lies an array of military rifles and muskets used by Continental troops against the British during the American War of Independence.

The artifacts, and thousands more, are part of an extensive collection housed by the American Revolution Center (ARC), a nonprofit organization that is planning to build the country’s first national museum of the revolution, which is expected to open within the next five years in central Philadelphia.

Although different aspects of the revolution have been told by other public institutions, R. Scott Stephenson, director of collections and interpretation for the American Revolution Center, said there is no central source for the history of the country’s founding.

“We want to be the place that’s the portal to get the big picture,” he explained in an interview.

CHANGE OF PLANS

The ARC was planning to build its museum and a conference center on 78 acres of private land at Valley Forge National Historical Park in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Washington’s troops camped during the harsh winter of 1777-78.

But national park advocates opposed the plans, arguing that the proposed construction and new roads and parking would desecrate a vital part of American history.

Critics led by the National Parks Conservation Association also said that building within Valley Forge would encourage development of privately owned land within other national parks.

Facing the prospect of a long legal battle, the ARC announced in July that it had opted instead to build its new museum on Independence Mall in central Philadelphia.

“It’s the perfect spot,” said ARC President Bruce Cole.

Cole said the site was first identified by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. It was secured through an agreement with the National Park Service, which runs Independence Mall, in a land swap under which ARC would acquire the central Philadelphia site in return for transferring its Valley Forge land to the park service.

The new museum will be built on the site of a former visitor center for the Liberty Bell. The existing building may be re-purposed or demolished to make way for a new structure. The ARC hopes to secure public and private funding for the project.

For now, the ARC’s priceless collection is held in the air-conditioned warehouse -- whose obscure backstreet location is deliberately not advertised -- where Stephenson sifts daily through boxes of artifacts that may have languished in donors’ attics for decades.

Among his recent discoveries were three law books owned by the revolutionary Patrick Henry, and a 1780 letter from George Washington to one of his officers in the Continental Army.

Wearing white gloves, Stephenson picked up a volume containing the first English language newspaper reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. On the opposite page is an advertisement for “a negro boy of four or five who has had smallpox and measles.”

Cole said the modern relevance of the revolution is experienced by anyone who has worshipped freely, sat on a jury, or expressed their opinions publicly.

“If you have done any of those things, you are a descendant of the revolution,” he said.

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