A museum of the American Revolution must look forward as well as back

     The latest iteration of the Museum of the American Revolution, April 2014.  (Image courtesy of the <a href='http://amrevmuseum.org/gallery/278'>Museum of the American Revolution</a>)

    The latest iteration of the Museum of the American Revolution, April 2014. (Image courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution)

    In March, the Philadelphia Art Commission rejected Robert A.M. Stern’s design for the Museum of the American Revolution.  He presented updated plans to the Commission on April 2, but it’s still a misreding of historical and contemporary Philadelphia.

    In March, the Philadelphia Art Commission rejected architect Robert A.M. Stern’s enduringly moribund design for the Museum of the American Revolution, to be built at 3rd and Chestnut streets, on the site of Philadelphia’s first modern high rise, the 1850 Jayne Building.

    The architecture of the museum is a style we might call faux neo-colonial; it borrows heavily from Stern’s George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas and it looks an awful lot like the power plants and gymnasiums of the 1920s. After a few weeks of consultation among Commission members, the design team, and museum officials, the architect presented updated plans to the Commission on April 2. The new plan did nothing to address the building’s lack of gracefulness, visual interest, or engagement with the street, but it did address a few small problems. And because of this, the Art Commission is expected to approve the revised design next month.

    I’ve written extensively about the museum’s design, both in the Inquirer  (“Shaping a Revolutionary space” and “Design revolution needed“) and the Hidden City Daily (“Looking For Revolutionary Architecture? You Won’t Find It At The New Museum Of The American Revolution” and “Which Contexts Matter?“), as a misreading of both history and the contemporary city. And recently, in fun and in seriousness, I authored a “Declaration of Architectural Independence” meant to show the Art Commission, the only Philadelphia regulatory body to have a say about the museum, that Philadelphians want a daring contemporary building to showcase the seminal event in the history of the nation.

    “A museum commemorating a revolution that restructured American society should be forward-looking and bold in design, not frozen in a nostalgic, diluted historic memory,” one signer wrote.

    (You can sign the declaration and read the dozens of comments at Change.org.)

    Honoring the past with life, color and a nod to the future

    Philadelphians have in fact long struggled to figure out how to tell the story of the Revolution. In the 1780s, the portraitist Charles Willson Peale was the first to give it a try. There’s much we can learn from his experience, particularly his recognition that in order to be compelling, public history has to feel alive. Peale’s story is also a reminder that history, certainly that of a conflicted event like the Revolution, is far more colorful than we imagine it, far more colorful indeed than Stern’s design could ever reveal.

    In the long studio connected to his house at 3rd and Lombard streets, just a few blocks from the proposed Museum of the American Revolution, Peale displayed 25″ x 30″ portraits of great American thinkers, statesmen, inventors, and artists — his “American Pantheon.” Peale, a radical democrat who had served in the Philadelphia insurgency seizing property from wealthy Tories and also at Valley Forge (where he made dozens of miniature pictures of soldiers), made a point to include in his pantheon visionaries of both the left and the right, from Thomas Paine to Robert Morris.

    You can see Peale’s paintings today in the portrait gallery inside the Second Bank of Bank of the United States.

    But Peale, both a showman with a sharp sense for public taste and an insistent progressive, knew the portrait gallery “would always be backward-looking and memorial and thus inadequate to represent American history in the making,” says the scholar David Ward.

    To educate people, one had to excite and move them. So with the aid of lamps and bright color transparencies — in 1781! — Peale projected onto his house a “Temple of Independence” with 13 ionic columns and symbols of the new nation: “Equal Rights,” “Universality,” “Virtue,” and, interestingly, “Perseverance.” America had triumphed in war, Peale wanted to say, but it would have to work hard to achieve its ideals.

    Revolution and risk

    Soon, in 1783, the insatiable artist would design and build a “Triumphal Arch” across Market Street to celebrate the end of war and the birth of the new republic. Peale’s arch, with human-sized figures at the top, was well more than 50 feet high. One could pass through the 20-foot-high center arch (there were three all together), beneath the inscription in English and Latin, “By The Divine Favor A Great And New Order Of Ages Commences.”

    After footing the bill for the arch himself (for which he was only reimbursed about 20 percent by the state of Pennsylvania), he painted it in bright colors and fashioned it with more than 1,100 interconnected lamps. The lighting of the arch was to have been accompanied by an audacious show of 700 fireworks, but one of them was set off too close to the arch itself, igniting the oil paint and lacquer and nearly killing Peale, who was on a scaffold at the time, putting the lamps in place. This first public celebration of the American Revolution ended in disaster.

    Those who support Stern’s design for the Museum of the American Revolution might read this story as a cautionary tale that reinforces their position in favor of a quiet building that, they say, “blends in.” Clearly, museum officials, worried about raising the funds needed to build the museum, don’t want an explosion. They’re desperate not to offend their board of directors and backers, almost uniformly from the worlds of law and finance. Peale would understand: He had to moderate his politics in order to gain commissions from the rich and ultimately, backing for his own museum — the first in the United States.

    However, though Peale might compromise, he probably wouldn’t capitulate to a plan that didn’t seek, at its core, progress, and allow for the possibility of the future. I don’t imagine he survived the winter at Valley Forge in order to look back later, or to rest on what was. The man who, in 1781, outfitted his own brick house with polychromatic decorations meant to teach and delight was, after all, seeking to invent a new reality.

    Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and senior writer of the film documentary “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.” His latest book is the novel “Lion and Leopard,” about, among other things, the tenacious life of Charles Willson Peale.

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