Battles were fought to open American Revolution Museum

American Revolution Museum
This photo depicts a fourteen-year-old London Pleasants, left, who left slavery by joining a Loyalist regiment encouraging other slaves to flee to the British Army in search freedom, at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

At times, it seemed like this day would never come; but finally, the Museum of the American Revolution is officially opening. Securing its funding, determining its location, and building the $120 million structure took longer than the rebellion itself, which lasted a mere eight years.

Congress approved a public-private partnership to build the first national museum dedicated to this country’s struggle for independence in 1999. Between then and now, however, quite a few skirmishes and battles took place.

The original plan was for the museum to be located at Valley Forge, which seemed to make sense given the guaranteed audience the thousands of annual visitors to that historic site would provide. But the National Park Service and the American Revolution Center’s board argued over the specific location within Valley Forge and whether to expand the facility to include a three-story hotel, conference center, campground, and other amenities.

Unable to reach agreement, the board decided the museum only needed to be near Valley Forge and decided to put it on a privately-owned 78-acre site between the Schuylkill and Route 422 in Montgomery County. Lower Providence residents objected and a zoning fight ensued, which the museum board won; but the threat of further litigation cast its eyes in a different direction, perhaps where they should have been all along — within Philadelphia’s historic district.

It took a land swap for that to happen. The National Park Service signed a land-exchange agreement with the ARC in 2009 to establish the museum within Independence National Historical Park. In return, the Park Service obtained the 78 acres surrounded by Valley Forge that the ARC had purchased. The land, which includes meadows, wetlands, and forests cut by two streams, had long been coveted by the Park Service as an addition to Valley Forge.

With that most important detail finally resolved, the museum could make a stronger appeal for philanthropic support. H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who not only served as board chairman but also as the museum’s biggest cheerleader, worked assiduously to raise the money needed to see project completed. One of the most notable donations was $10 million from the Oneida Indian Nation, which was an early ally of the Continental Army. The Oneidas brought bushels of corn to help feed Gen. George Washington’s starving soldiers at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78.

Just as Washington’s army prevailed, so have those who fought for the Museum of the American Revolution. There will be other battles. Some of the city’s other recent attractions, including the National Museum of Jewish History, struggled early to gain visitors.

But the American Revolution is what draws most tourists to Philadelphia every year. They want to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House. A museum with artifacts and interactive exhibits that tell the story of this nation’s founding should be a resounding success.