The Museum of the American Revolution opened on Wednesday. Conservative pundits are already trashing it.
As the chief historian at the new Museum of the American Revolution, which opened April 19 in this city’s historic district, Philip Mead had the job of writing the museum’s explanatory labels—those little signs next to an exhibit that tell you what you’re looking at. By his own admission, he would sometimes get carried away. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Harvard, and, perforce, he writes like a guy with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He might even use words like “perforce.” Not reader-friendly, in other words.
Fortunately for him, he had several chefs peering into the pot of his prose. “They’d say things like, ‘You’ve got room for 75 words and you’re trying to get four ideas in,’ ” he said the other day. “They’d say, ‘That’s three too many. You only get one.’ ” The museum’s director of learning and engagement ran his every sentence through a pitiless piece of software called Hemingway Editor, which ranks a piece of writing by grade level. In Hemingway, the lower the grade, the better.
“She’d come back and say, ‘Hemingway says you’re writing at 37th grade level. You have to get it down to 8th grade.’ ” And so he did. Mead isn’t complaining—he says he’s glad he mastered the art of writing “short, declarative sentences” and keeping things simple.
Still, a plunge of 29 grade levels might prompt a grumpy critic to complain that the museum has undergone a measurable dumbing-down. Such a critic, whoever he is, will have to get over it. Nearly all attempts to educate the general public, from PBS documentaries to art shows to history museums, are pitched to the level of a slightly dim, constantly distracted middle-schooler. Curators and exhibit designers spend their lives gripped by the fear that they will lose the attention of this mythic museumgoer.
This is why exhibits in modern museums jump and shimmy and flash and roar with every digitized mechanism the budget will allow. The gimmickry is best understood as the frantic arm-waving of designers and curators, hopping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Hey! Kid! Over here! Look, look, look! It goes boom!”
The third-largest donor was the Oneida Indian Nation, with a check for $10 million, plus incidentals.
That would be the same Oneida in the exhibit with the stern-faced tribal elders. The Oneida’s donation came with a quid pro quo that is refreshing in its openly transactional nature. Concessions to big-ticket donors are of course routine in every nonprofit project, not only in museums but hospitals too, and performing arts centers, and so on. Long gone are the days when a benefactor like Andrew Mellon could found and endow a museum like the National Gallery of Art without naming the enterprise after his own modest and generous self. Ballrooms and theaters, even toilets and water fountains, carry the names of the donors who made it all possible. Inside or outside the Museum of the American Revolution you’ll have trouble finding a square foot of real estate whose naming rights haven’t been bought by a big corporation or a civic-minded, guilt-ridden member of the 1 percent.
But buying the content of exhibits is seldom so frankly acknowledged. The curatorial attention lavished on the Oneida is almost comically out of proportion to the role the tribe played in the real revolutionary war, and no one I talked to at the museum bothers to argue otherwise. The curators never miss a chance to pay tribute to the benefactor. In a cathedral-like space dubbed the Oneida Indian Nation Atrium, at the head of a grand staircase, a 16-by-19-foot painting of Washington conferring with Rochambeau, called the Siege of Yorktown, dominates the room.
Read the entire review here.