The story the Museum of the American Revolution tells is a refreshingly inclusive one. Inspired by the same thinking that informed the hit musical Hamilton, the museum deepens the oft-told history of our nation’s birth by bringing to life the ordinary people who participated in the great American experiment. Enslaved Africans, American Indians, and women are all given their due in its vivid displays.
But at some point during the decade-long process of creating this progressive little museum, the goals of its historian-curators and its architects diverged in a big way. In contrast to the narrative established by the exhibits, the building is overblown in scale, false in its approach to architecture, and stridently conservative in appearance. If architecture today is a means of telegraphing your brand, the design of Philadelphia’s newest museum amounts to a major communications misfire.
The museum board certainly knew what it was getting into when it hired Robert A.M. Stern as its architect. His firm has made a profitable business out of producing stylized modern interpretations of historic architecture. Philadelphia, unfortunately, has been an all-too-welcoming locale for the firm's retrograde designs. See the meetinghouse next to the new Mormon Temple, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies on 34th Street, or 10 Rittenhouse.
The revolution museum at Third and Chestnut is no less stodgy.
These days, no museum gets designed without such rooms. Although the $120 million Revolution museum is starting out with no debt and a sizable endowment (thanks in part to a $63 million gift from philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, a former Inquirer owner), the institution still needs to generate money to keep up its massive property. A big chunk of the sprawling office suite on the third floor is dedicated to the fund-raising and membership departments. Imagine if they had used the ample budget to install the museum's exhibits in one of Independence National Park's deteriorating historic buildings, like the First Bank of the United States on Third Street.
So where is the actual museum in this giant new building?, you might wonder.
The main galleries are all clustered on the second floor. If you take the curving staircase, rather than the elevators, you arrive at another massively scaled room -- more party space! -- that leads to a sequence of exhibition rooms. Though the oddly old-fashioned staircase seems better suited to a McMansion than a history museum, the pathways through the galleries are clear and logical. That is no small thing.