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Museum of the American Revolution: 10 little-known facts to know before you go

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Keep an eye out for these hidden gems and details

A crowd of hundreds standing in the plaza in front of the Robert A.M. Stern-designed Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
The Museum of the American Revolution officially opens on April 19, 2017.
Photograph by Melissa Romero

After more than a decade in the making, the Museum of the American Revolution is set to open its doors to the public on Wednesday, April 19 in the presence of dignitaries like Vice President Joe Biden. It will be the latest museum to open in Philly since the Barnes Foundation in 2012.

Reviews thus far of the Robert A.M. Stern-designed museum have been mixed, but there is much to see and explore here. Here are 10 little-known facts you should know about the museum, with help from lead RAMSA designer Alexander Lamis, to provide a bit of context before you go.

1. It wasn’t supposed to be in Philly

The long and arduous history of the Museum of the American Revolution coming to Philly actually starts over in Valley Forge. In the mid-2000s, the original location for this museum was proposed for the National Park. But as the Inquirer rehashes, those plans were dashed after years of battles between the parks service, state, and community.

As this original Robert A.M. Stern rendering reveals, the museum at Valley Forge would have been much more contemporary compared to the traditional, Georgian-style of the actual museum.

Rendering by Thomas Schaller for Robert A.M. Stern Architects

Architect Alexander Lamis recounted to Curbed Philly, “We had been involved with the same client back when it was in Valley Forge in its previous life. There, the design was very different. It was very contemporary and had a lot more to do with the landscape there. But here we worked very hard to contextualize the building with its surroundings.”

2. It replaced the modern Independence Living History Center

In fact, the museum now replaces what was once the home of the Independence Living History Center, a more modern building that was a mix of brick and glass. While the current museum takes a more traditional route, Lamis notes that the 3rd Street facade is now much more open than the original, with 20-foot-tall windows and an outdoor plaza and a patio off the cafe.

3. Those bronze sculptures outside weigh 1,500 pounds—each

On Chestnut Street facade of the museum, there are two enormous bronze sculptures depicting important scenes from the Revolutionary War: George Washington crossing the Delaware River and John Trumbull’s “The Declaration of Independence.”

The massive sculptures were designed by artist Ellen Schicktanz and a team of about 10 sculptors. Schicktanz, a recent U.S. citizen who was born in China, decided to create the pieces as a way to better understand the history of the U.S. She donated the two sculptures to the museum.

Courtesy of MoAR

4. There’s a reason the lighting is so low.

It’s pretty dim throughout all of the exhibits. Why? By U.S. standards, these artifacts are ancient, so they can only handle a small amount of light exposure without suffering damage. To accommodate for this, in many cases a light will shine briefly on one artifact as a narrated voiceover describes its significance.

4. George Washington’s tent only gets one minute of fame.

One of the most touted artifacts on display at the museum is George Washington’s marquee tent. But blink and you might miss it: The tent is so delicate that it hides in a temperature-controlled glass box in a dark theater. After an eight-minute video detailing the history of the tent, the actual structure is then revealed for about one minute. Then, show’s over.

“They’re being super careful about the amount of light that hits the tent,” explains Lamis. “They’ve capped the number of photons that hit it.”

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6. The naval ship replica was built right here in Philly

One of the exhibits features a replica of a Revolutionary naval ship that visitors can walk about. The craftsmanship is the work of Independence Seaport Museum in South Philly. The 19- by 45-foot ship was built at the museum’s workshop, then dismantled and rebuilt at the Museum of the American Revolution.

7. Most of the materials used are local

Lamis says that as much as possible, RAMSA tried to source materials that were local or from the original 13 colonies. The Flemish and common bond exterior brick was sourced from Watsontown, Pennsylvania, for example, while the marble base inside is from Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, the “America’s Liberty Tree” in the Olin-designed plaza was planted using soil from 15 American Revolutionary sites around the country.

Photo by Melissa Romero

8. That staircase can hold a ton of people

One of the museum’s showstoppers is the elliptical staircase that leads visitors from the lobby to the actual exhibits on the second floor.

“The staircase obviously is evocative of something that would be in a house or public building in that period,” Lamis says. “But at the same time, it’s made of steel and can have 100 people on it at a time.”

Photo by Melissa Romero

Building the staircase proved challenging for Intec, the construction team, but Lamis says, “They were totally into it.”

9. There’s a beautiful third-floor terrace

The entire second floor of the museum is reserved for gallery space. But on the third story, there’s Liberty Hall, an enormous event space with terraces and 34-foot-tall ceilings. Unfortunately, this space will only be open for special events.

10. There will be a temporary exhibit—eventually

The museum has a 4,565-square-foot room on the first floor that will serve as a temporary gallery. It won’t be open for another year, so for the time being it will serve as a sort of open space for families and visitors. But when it does set up shop, just consider it another reason to come back, says Lamis.