American Revolution Museum shares stories of 'ordinary people in extraordinary times'

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

As guests enter the main hallway of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, they'll notice a series of photographs.

"I was there," the display is titled.

And from each photograph peers a person who was there during the American Revolution.

Sarah Osborn Benjamin was there 235 years ago at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781. A former servant who married a Continental soldier and traveled with him during the war, Benjamin's experiences were documented years later in her pension application. In that application, she described an encounter with Gen. George Washington at Yorktown.

He asked her, in the midst of carrying food to soldiers, if she feared the cannonballs.

"No, the bullets would not cheat the gallows," she replied. "It would not do for the men to fight and starve too."

Benjamin's story is one of several woven through the new museum's entire experience — stories of "ordinary people in extraordinary times," said Peter Armstrong, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation's senior director of museum operations.

In the coming months, the Gazette will explore different facets of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which replaces the Yorktown Victory Center.

Set to open officially next spring, the state-operated museum debuts its new name this weekend, along with an introductory film and exhibition galleries containing 22,000-square-feet of artifacts, interactives, dioramas and more.

While the siege and consequent victory at Yorktown marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War, the museum follows the revolution from seeds of discontentment planted years before the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the emergence of a new nation and American identity that continued years after the war's end.

First, we look at the museum's storytelling thread.

"It's our shared connection to the past," said museum curator Kate Gruber. "We all go through extraordinary times, and I think taking ordinary people and following their story through the American Revolution humanizes the American Revolution in a way that makes it relatable to us personally, and to the struggles of our ongoing experiment with democracy today."

A common thread

The photograph of Sarah Osborn Benjamin initially stunned Gruber.

She encountered the picture before joining the museum as curator, even before construction on the museum began in 2012.

At the time, Gruber visited the Yorktown Victory Center in its former building while taking a museum studies class at the College of William and Mary. She turned a corner and noticed a graphic about Benjamin.

"I must've stared at her for 10 minutes," Gruber said. "I could not get over the fact that I was standing there in Yorktown, Virginia, and there she was looking at me, and she was there too."

Benjamin's photograph, her story, is one that guests encounter just before entering the gallery space, but her story doesn't end there.

Hers is one of nearly 20 stories featured in the Personal Stories Interactive, a life-size touchscreen allowing guests to explore the true stories of those 20 individuals, and others like them.

The interactive even tells the story of Trip, a "patriot dog," Gruber joked.

Isabella Barbara Ferguson, Trip's owner, was an Irish immigrant who married into South Carolinian family that would later pronounce view loyal to Great Britain.

Gruber recounted the moment Ferguson assured her brother-in-law she would not become a Loyalist, saying, "I'm a rebel. My brother's a rebel, and the dog Trip is a rebel, too."

That moment is captured in "Liberty Fever," the new introductory film Gruber played a large role in developing. The film follows six of these "ordinary" people through the lens of a storyteller from the early 19th century who tells these six stories through the medium of moving panorama.

There's Peter Harris of the Catawba nation, who joined the 3rd South Carolina Regiment, and Billy Flora, a free African American soldier who became a Patriot hero during the Battle of Great Bridge.

Another story the film follows is that of George Hewes, who Gruber said witnessed nearly every major moment of the American Revolution, from the Boston Massacre to the war's end.

None of these people are fictional, Gruber said. Their words and experiences come from primary sources, such as pension applications and memoirs.

While the museum doesn't lessen its focus on traditionally prominent figures like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, Gruber said, "we wanted to give our visitors an emotional connection to the past. We wanted to tell stories that people could see themselves in."

The galleries also contain an experiential theater, using sight, sound and sensation to place guests at the Siege of Yorktown. The film's narration contains the words of Joseph Plumb Martin, who enlisted in the Continental Army as a teenager and kept diaries of his experience.

"When you want to learn about a Continental soldier who was fighting in General Washington's army ... all the way through to Yorktown, Joseph Plumb Martin is a great example of that," said Homer Lanier, the foundation's interpretive program manager.

When guests visit the museum's outdoor living-history area, Lanier said they can "enlist" in the army at the recreated Continental Army encampment — just as Martin once did years ago.

A personal connection

"(Visitors) may expect to learn about the history of the American Revolution, but I think they're going to find a lot more," Armstrong said.

From the museum's perspective, he said, it's about delving beyond the hows and the whats into the why.

Armstrong himself used to wonder why an ordinary man or woman of the time would risk everything to confront a world power. And for what?

"It's not wealth," he said. "It's just for this strange thing called liberty."

In the human stories it tells, the experiences it provides and the nearly 500 artifacts it holds, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown brings visitors ever closer to understanding why ordinary people rose to extraordinary times more than 200 years ago, and how they still can today.

"The America Revolution was not predetermined," Gruber said. "Once you remember that these were very real people that were acting without the benefit of the hindsight that we have today, I think that that makes their stories even more dramatic."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Yorktown Victory Weekend

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Located at 200 Water St., the museum opens at 9 a.m. on Oct. 15, open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily thereafter. Events on Oct. 15 and 16 include performances from Field Musick Virginia and the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown, artillery firings and hands-on demonstrations and interpretive programs.

Admission is $9.75 for adults, $5.50 for ages 6-12 and free for children under six. Residents of York County, James City County and City of Williamsburg, including College of William and Mary students, receive complimentary admission with proof of residency.

For more information, visit historyisfun.org or call 757-253-4838.

Yorktown Battlefield

Celebrating the 235th anniversary of America's victory at Yorktown, Yorktown Battlefield will present historical lectures, tours and artillery demonstrations daily from Oct. 14-16.

On Oct. 14, Rand Scholet of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society will speak on the storming of Redoubt #10 at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

On Oct. 15, Park Ranger Jerome Bridges will deliver a first-person account of Windsor Fry, an African American in the Rhode Island Regiment, and the British Royal Artillery will demonstrate. Activities continue through Sunday with musket demonstrations and ranger-guided tours.

Admission from Oct. 14-16 is $7 for adults and free for those under 16. For more information, call 757-898-2410 or visit nps.gov/colo.

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