The Museum of the American Revolution turns one this week amid glowing praise as a vibrant and vital cultural institution — with growing crowds and rising coffers and new programming. But even with all the laurels, the museum’s yardstick of success seems to be the approval of a 7-year-old from Delaware named Oliver.
With every program they add, the curators check to see if Oliver is in the crowd. He almost always is, usually bedecked in his regimental frock, the one he made sure had authentic pewter buttons — and his tricorn hat with a cloth flower fastened to the brim and a haversack stuffed with his notebooks, which he fills with facts and sketches.
Oliver Theibault-Dean has been to the Revolution museum more than 30 times since it opened last April. (He couldn’t make it to the opening. He was at Lexington and Concord. But he got there the next day.)
His parents lost count of their visits months ago, somewhere in the teens. This is not their doing: Neither his mother, Jenna Dean, a drug counselor, nor his father, Chris Theibault, a tech-industry worker, is a history buff.
“Not even a little bit,” said Jenna.
No, this is all Oliver.
His obsession with the Revolution began at age 5, with a school assignment on national monuments, which inspired a family trip to D.C., which likewise engendered in young Oliver a newfound love of George Washington. And that led to a so-far insatiable interest in literally everything that has to do with the Revolution. Everything.
His bedroom is practically wallpapered in copies of the Declaration of Independence and scenes of crucial moments in the war. He is working on a short story about a colonial boy foraging rum for the Minutemen. (“I don’t know if we can take that to school,” Jenna said.) For Christmas, all he wanted was colonial woodworking tools.
It’s a passion that plays out, trip by trip, at the museum, nearly every week. His family bucked up for a membership when they realized it was this, or have Oliver move into the Old City attraction.
“Hello, Oliver,” said Damien Niescior, a museum educator who mans the replica privateer ship, one of Oliver’s favorite spots, on a recent visit. “We all know Oliver.”
In its first year, the museum has become part of the firmament of Philly’s historical attractions. It has a huge endowment and cool stuff on the horizon, like an interactive experience on Alexander Hamilton’s life in Philadelphia, in advance of the Broadway musical smash that’s finally making its way to the town where much of it happened.
But all this stuff means nothing if it’s not connecting to kids like Oliver.
In fairness, he may be an outlier. He’s on a first-name basis with everyone from the floor staff to the big wigs. And that’s because so many of them were Oliver when they were young: consumed by an all-encompassing passion that few understood. (I was one of those kids, too. At 9, I spent most of my free time writing in a marble notebook about notable Civil War battles.) How lovely, then, that there’s now a focal point for those kids to indulge that passion.
And Oliver does — sometimes twice a week. He has his routine and his favorites. He blows disdainfully past the exhibit on King George III: “It’s the king’s room,” he scoffs. He can recite the entire video on the French and Indian War, he can point out the historical inaccuracies in the engravings of the Boston Massacre, and he can offer a succinct and chilling description of the punishment colonists bestowed upon tax collectors.
“You’re putting hot tar on someone and feathering them, so there’s that,” he said.
It’s always a family event: Oliver is indoctrinating his 1-year-old sister, Winnie. He makes sure she is properly dressed for reenactment at any given time. And, the way the first fiery days of rebellion tried Philadelphians’ souls, Oliver tries his mother’s on occasion. “Mom! Where’s my haversack?” he yelled at the museum, possibly the first 7-year-old to utter the phrase in 200 years.
Once, his parents told him they were taking him to the museum but took him to the airport instead: They were surprising him with a trip to Disney World. He cried. There was an exhibition on commemorative pins at the museum that he wanted to see one last time.
It’s an enthusiasm the museum directors wish they could bottle and sell in the gift shop. “Oh, my god, Oliver,” said Dr. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of exhibitions and programming, when I called. “A lot of people who work in museums, including myself, instantly saw ourselves in this kid. He has become a fixture.”
Researchers study this, the kind of magical, evocative moments that stick in a kid’s head at a museum. They call it a sticky memory. They can shape a life. For Oliver, every day at the museum is a sticky memory. Every trip he comes with a goal: Learn five new things.
When I visited with him on Thursday, he rattled off some facts, took a few notes, sketched the Battle of Trenton, and was off to the big guns on the privateer ship. “I need some help here,” he confessed, his feet sliding along the deck. He is, after all, 7.