Making sure Philly's Revolution tale is told right

When historian Philip Mead visited Philadelphia as a child, he was disappointed in how the story of the Revolution was told. As curator of the soon-to-open Museum of the American Revolution, in the Central Revolution Gallery, he has a chance to tell "a story that belongs to all of us."

Philip Mead first visited Philadelphia as a 13-year-old Revolutionary War buff, a precocious kid who'd go on to study under some of the preeminent historians of the era. Already he'd hiked the Freedom Trail in Boston, traversed the fields at Yorktown, and made pilgrimages to countless other Revolutionary hot spots.

Now, as he toured the sites and cobblestoned streets of the old city, his impression could be best summed up not with words, but with a single sound: "Ehhhhhhh."

This kid wasn't picky about the Revolution. He'd visit anywhere with a hint of colonial flavor.

But in Philly, the story was all over the place, disconnected.

He admired the bell. The Benjamin Franklin Museum did right by Ol' Ben. And the guides at Independence Hall recounted with fervor those first fiery days of rebellion.

But nobody told the whole story. Nowhere, it seemed, in the city that birthed America, could you get the full narrative of the Revolution, from start to finish, in all its complexity.

This bummed the kid out.

So, it was a fitting historical twist that 25 years later that same kid, now a respected historian with a Harvard Ph.D., is tasked with weaving all those threads together - back in Philly, no less, at the Museum of the American Revolution, which opens in the spring.

"The museum is here to provide a point of passage into the Revolutionary city - that museum that we all live in, the built environment of Revolutionary Philadelphia," said Mead, 39, director of curatorial affairs and chief historian at the museum at Third and Chestnut Streets.

The goal of the institution is simple: To give the Revolution back to its people.

"It is a story," Mead said, "that belongs to all of us."

The museum he's tailoring will be a place, he said, that inspires conversation and debate, to spur visitors to reflect on "what the Revolution is and what these words of liberty really mean."

For Mead, studying the period has always been more calling than job. Growing up in historic Simsbury, Conn., near a prison where they jailed loyalists to King George III, the boy was drawn to the time when America became America - "it was remote enough to almost feel fantastical," he said.

For a high school summer job, he worked an archaeological dig, unearthing revolutionary-era cannonballs near Lake Champlain. When popping open the explosives' long-sealed corks, he could feel the air bursting from the bombs. He huffed it into his lungs.

"I can say I actually breathed Revolutionary air," he said.

As a fellow in early American studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, he wintered in a stone house at Valley Forge, snowshoeing Mount Misery and Mount Joy, the grounds where Washington's troops trained and suffered.

Now, he spends his days preparing the exhibits at the museum. Alongside attention-grabbing treasures like Washington's tent, he highlights ordinary, overlooked lives that bring the Revolution to life, the belongings of slaves and Minutemen and Redcoats and colonial Philadelphians:

A soldier's finely woven and elaborately stitched woolen wallet, likely a wedding gift for a husband going off to war.

Iron slave shackles, so small they could only have been for a child.

A soldier's diary describing the murderous British artillery onslaught at Fort Mifflin.

The soldier lamented how the common soldiers' hardships would likely be lost to history. "Great men get great praise," he wrote. "Little men get nothing."

But not in Mead's care. He means to tell the full story.

mnewall@phillynews.com

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