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A new exhibit at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg is literally mapping out the colonies’ road to revolution, from the early establishment of a thriving cross-Atlantic trade economy all the way through the birth of a new nation.
We Are One: Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence is the first collaboration between the Art Museums and the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.
The exhibit opened in Williamsburg earlier this month after debuting in Boston in 2015.
Though the show features some rare items on loan from the Boston Public Library, as well as several private collections, curator Margaret Prichard estimates two-thirds of the objects on display belong to Colonial Williamsburg – some of which have never been seen by the public.
The Williamsburg exhibit differs significantly from its Boston predecessor, with greater emphasis on the southern colonies and Virginia in particular, but the story the maps and other art objects tell remains consistent between the two versions of the show.
“We kept the same basic themes [as the Boston show],” Pritchard said.
As with the Boston show, this exhibition is divided into five sections that run roughly chronological. A walk through the gallery begins with a look at a series of maps and drawings depicting the Atlantic World, which serve to establish the context for all four sections to follow. Both modern and period maps are on display, tracing the trade routes that connected London and the colonies with frequent pit-stops in Africa, where people were enslaved and brought to the New World.
Though the maps illuminate the logistical component of the exchange of goods between London and the colonies, it is the inclusion of pieces like the diagram of how the maximum number slaves could be crammed into the hull of a ship that packs more of an emotional punch.
“What we’ve tried to do is deal not only with the history, but also aspects of the human element,” Pritchard said.
It is that human element that Pritchard believes sets this show apart from previous map exhibits Colonial Williamsburg has put together. While the maps still play a central role here, paintings, political cartoons, home goods and weapons complement them throughout.
The second section of the exhibit focuses on the French and Indian War and how that conflict set the stage for the American Revolution that followed.
This portion of the show includes several rare and priceless artifacts, like the map George Washington made during the Ohio campaign and a journal he kept during the same time period.
“It’s amazing to think, here is a map that has Washington’s DNA all over it,” Pritchard said.
The consequences of the French and Indian War are fleshed out more explicitly in the third section of the show, which focuses on the growing unrest in the colonies.
“What happened as a result of the French and Indian War is England had all of this new land, and they needed to generate more revenue,” Pritchard said. “So they taxed the colonies.”
Many of the objects in this portion of the exhibition deal with the Stamp Act of 1765, a hugely unpopular law that brought the issue of taxation without representation to the forefront of political discourse.
In addition to political cartoons about the public reaction to the act and household goods, such as a teapot emblazoned with the words “No Stamp Act,” that capitalized on popular sentiment, this section of the show also includes a recently acquired rare portrait of Isaac Barre.
The portrait of Barre, who fought in the French and Indian War and stood up for the colonies in the British Parliament, was a significant acquisition for Colonial Williamsburg for several reasons. Not only is Barre the man responsible for coining the phrase “sons of liberty,” he is also pictured here holding a map with Virginia brightly outlined.
The penultimate portion of the show deals with the meat of the Revolution and is divided into sections showcasing maps and objects relating to the northeastern, mid-Atlantic and southern colonies.
Many of the items on display here are incredibly rare or even one-of-a-kind, Pritchard said. The collection’s original copy of the momentous non-importation act is one of only eight in existence – the other seven are all in the Library of Congress.
The maps in this section of the museum serve many different purposes. Some of them were made and used to plan military strategies, with officers using them to sketch out battle plans and keep track of the movements of key players. Others were filled out after the battles had taken place, recording and documenting what went down for future reference and for posterity. Finally, Pritchard suspects some of the maps in the collection – ones hastily made and widely distributed in newspapers – were created as a form of propaganda.
Standout objects in this section of the show include a portrait of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, which Pritchard considers to be “one of the most iconic objects in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection,” and a rare map of Yorktown and Gloucester Point complete with an overlay that depicts troop positions at both the beginning and end of the Battle of Yorktown.
The final section of the exhibition deals with the birth of a new nation and includes early American-, British- and French-made maps of the newly independent colonies. These items offer a glimpse into how the U.S. was viewed both domestically and abroad in its earliest days.
As visitors walk through the show, Pritchard hopes they will pay particular attention to the decorative elements and images included on each map.
“We sort of tend to gloss over those and go straight to the geographic features today, because we’re used to how media comes at us so fast and trying to process it quickly,” Pritchard said. “But the decoration on these early maps is so important. There’s a reason they included every single element.”
In addition to paying attention to those kinds of symbolic details, Pritchard also hopes guests will enjoy the fun facts that can found scattered throughout the exhibit under the “Did You Know?” label, which give added interest to the objects they accompany.
The mixture of conversational tidbits alongside historical background echoes the mixture of more emotionally compelling objects and illustrations alongside the maps that record the factual happenings of the day. The result is an exhibit that speaks to both history and humanity.
“I think this [exhibit] walks you through the Revolution not so much as the documented history, but as how people felt,” Pritchard said. “Maps can be a little clinical, but this really adds the human element, and it does a good job of combining the history with the decorative arts.”
We Are One will remain on view through Jan. 29, 2017. Click here for ticket information.