Focus Groups: New Yorktown Museum Should Tell Personal Stories

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

The facade of the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
The facade of the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

Months of listening sessions have revealed a strong appetite for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown to tell different stories than the commonly told tale of how America won its independence.

People want to hear about how the turbulent era affected individuals who lived through it via highly personal anecdotes. They want to know how the British perceived the conflict and about how it affected Africans and Native Americans. And they want to know how the conflict informs subsequent revolutions up to the present day.

The listening sessions were held over the past six months by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the state agency that operates the Yorktown Victory Center and Jamestown Settlement.

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is set to open next year as a replacement for the victory center, and the listening sessions were used to try to determine what visitors want to see in a 5,000-square-foot special exhibition area.

“We got all these stakeholders in one sentence: visitors want a clear and individual connection with their past,” JYF Senior Director of Museum Operations and Education Peter Armstrong told the JYF Board of Trustees at a meeting Wednesday. “That’s what they’re all telling us.”

The listening sessions featured staff from the museums, exhibition design companies, military families, teachers, members of American Revolution groups and members of the JYF Board of Trustees and the board of directors of JYF’s private fundraising group, JYF Inc. Their comments led JYF staff to craft three proposals for what should be placed first in the rotating 5,000-square-foot exhibition area.

  • The Theater of War: A Soldier’s Story – The story of the Revolutionary Era would be told from the perspective of six men, including military commanders, soldiers and civilians. It would follow them through the fateful years of the Revolution and into the following decades, all while exploring the parallels between soldiers from that era and today.
  • Reporting on Revolution – The exhibition would trace the way revolutions are depicted through mass media from 1776 through the present day. Newspaper clippings, television broadcasts and social media would be among the mediums used to tell the personal stories of journalists working to cover massive — and often violent — societal change.
  • The Culture of Revolution: You Say You Want a Revolution – This exhibit would tell the story of revolutions from 1776 through the present day through cultural artifacts, including music, literature, film, video games and art. It will explain cultural influences on revolutions and what motivates people to take sides.

“We believe these exhibitions take the story of the revolution and expand it to people’s stories today,” Armstrong said. “We want to set apart from other American revolution museums.”

Armstrong must now create more detailed proposals for each of those three themes, which he will bring back to JYF’s board of trustees and JYF Inc.’s board of directors. Those boards will make the final decision for what will appear first in the gallery area. They will consider which exhibition should be the first to go into the exhibition area later this year.

The listening sessions produced two other exhibition proposals which Armstrong wants to place in the gallery in 2019 and 2020.

  • African Americans and the Revolution: Where Will Be Our Freedom? – 2019 marks the anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in the English settlements. The exhibit would explore the roles Africans played in the revolution, with a special look at the struggles of slaves fighting for a cause that would not free them. It will use the stories of individuals to trace the lives of slaves before, during and after the revolution, also touching on the formation of Liberia, the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.
  • Women in the Revolution – Remember the Ladies: 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which extends the right to vote to women. This exhibit would teach visitors about the women who fought alongside men and who kept homes functioning through the turbulence. It would also detail the struggle for the right to vote.

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is slated to open late next year.

The 80,000-square-foot building it will call home was recently opened and is currently operating as the Yorktown Victory Center, though the main exhibition areas are not yet complete.

The victory center moved to the building to allow crews to demolish the existing victory center building, whose land will be used for an expanded outdoor interpretive area.

Related Coverage: