The messages on the Liberty Tree at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown are thoughtful.
“Freedom to do anything I put my mind to, not only being a girl but also being African American,” Chloe A. of Williamsburg wrote.
They offer a point of view.
“Liberty means respecting and protecting the rights of all people to live their lives in peace,” said Pam of Williamsburg.
They repeat thoughts of key leaders or quote from key documents.
“Give me liberty or give me death,” a Williamsburg resident quotes Patrick Henry.
They support the military:
“Freedom isn’t free; God bless our troops!,” wrote Jen from Newport News.
Some are a variant of:
“Liberty is freedom.”
Some have a religious or faith orientation:
“Freedom to speak freely, worship as you please and choice of one’s path as long as it doesn’t bring harm to another,” Sam from Yorktown wrote.
Still others are humorous:
“Liberty is being able to eat pizza rolls,” Travis from Williamsburg wrote.
But they all have meaning, and all touch on the liberty theme — even the pizza comment — said Heather Hower, assistant director of outreach education and digital media services at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
“I started thinking, wow, that response is really valid, because you’re taking something a teenage kid does value and they’re expressing that on their tree,” Hower said. “So that on some level they’re thinking about what would happen if I didn’t have that freedom to have pizza. I’d say that’s one of my realizations.”
People choose how much to identify themselves when they leave thoughts on the Liberty Tree, but most thoughts at least identified where the writer was from.
Liberty Tree origins
The brainstorming for what is now the Liberty Tree began as a sketch of a tree on a sheet of paper.
The original thought was the leaves would have screens, with the messages fluttering across them. At least that was the idea when Hower handed the concept sketch to the design team.
They made it something entirely different, she said, with the look and functionality of the tree taking on new forms. For instance, the design team found that screens would not work on the leaves with current technology. She said that’s how the tree ended up with lanterns — a design evolution.
Of the 20 lanterns on the 17-foot “elm” tree, 14 feature messages from the public, while the other six show static messages from important people in American history, such as James Madison or Alexander Hamilton.
“We really wanted a sculptural element in the museum,” Hower said. “And so, the original idea was something that looked a little more like a tree, but it was such a lost opportunity to have a more contemporary type of sculptural element if we didn’t make it a little more abstract, a little bit more modern.”
Of the more than 11,000 messages that visitors to the museum and its website have left between April and mid-October, just a handful have had to be censored for inappropriate content, Hower said.
When someone types a message, it initially goes onto a lantern hanging from the tree for 20 seconds — unless someone types profanity or something inappropriate, as recognized by the tree’s internal software.
Otherwise, if they typed their message from the museum, it stays on the lantern long enough for the author to see it live. After that, messages are stored in an online database until a foundation staff member can review them, typically within a day.
Some messages, such as “Hi mom,” or “Timmy smells,” Hower said, while not inappropriate, would not stay on the tree because they don’t incorporate the liberty theme.
But those messages are few.
“Overwhelmingly, the majority of messages entered in on the tree, either here (at the museum) or online are not only appropriate, but well thought out,” Hower said.
The tree’s future
Homer Lanier, the foundation’s interpretive program manager, noted the Liberty Tree’s symbolism since the time of the Revolution and said it has been a great fit toward the end of the museum’s galleries to allow people to reflect on liberty’s meaning.
“I think the Liberty Tree is a great way for people to post messages about the things they feel about liberty and about freedom,” Lanier said. “It’s great symbolism from the time of the Revolution, and it’s great symbolism that still translates here to the 21st century. We’re using 21st-century technology to tell that 18th-century story.”
And foundation staff want to keep the Liberty Tree fresh for a 21st-century audience to prevent it from being a static item, perhaps giving it a higher profile within the museum.
Hower said the Liberty Tree will continue to grow — not literally, but in how and where it’s used. The foundation likes the tree’s placement, and its symbolism — bursting through the facade — but Hower said the tree can offer more.
“We also want to evolve the setting that the tree is in so visitors can feel a little more immersed in the experience,” Hower said. “So we’re taking this first year to evaluate how it’s working and how folks are interacting with it, and then we’d like to update our space eventually, so that the tree has a setting that immerses people in it, more of a focal point.”
From a functional standpoint, Hower said a possibility is to ask people a different question to make the tree more relevant to current events.
Still thinking about pizza
Hower dwelled more on the pizza comments visitors have left, and about the thoughts that perhaps, on the surface, are not-so-serious. She said that, with people’s thoughts, the museum becomes a conversation, not just a static space.
It gives them information and experiences, and people share with the museum what liberty means to them.
“What we’ve done here is inspire thought,” Hower said. “They actually thought about liberty and associated that with pizza. But for that brief moment of time, they’ve thought about liberty means to them and what it is to be an American.”