Museum Exhibition Examines the Revolution from a New Angle

Written by: Heidi Campbell-Shoaf, DAR Museum Director and Chief Curator
September 25, 2015

Many first time visitors to the DAR Museum walk off the street and through our doors expecting to see objects from the American Revolution. One hundred and twenty-five years ago, when DAR founders created the museum, they did not specifically say it was to be for the preservation of Revolutionary War-era objects alone. The founders had a broader scope in mind, and we grew into a decorative arts museum with an emphasis on the American home. Nevertheless, some of the earliest items given to the museum had some sort of Revolutionary connection.

The new exhibition opening October 9, 2015, Remembering the American Revolution 1776-1890, draws heavily on these early gifts to the DAR Museum. You will see a musket and a powder horn and several war-era diaries, all preserved by family members as mementos of the War of Independence until they were at last given to the Museum. You also will see objects people made, collected, and purchased to perpetuate the memory of the nation’s founding era.

We chose the years 1776-1890 because they encompass the first three generations to see the United States as a nation. More significantly, this time period was when the popular stories and personalities we associate with the Revolution became part of the national identity. During the years of war and government building, the end result far from certain, Washington became a unifying personality. Long before the dollar bill and the quarter, Washington’s face was found on ceramics, textiles, and lithographs decorating people’s homes.

In the 1820s, President James Monroe invited the Marquis de Lafayette to visit the United States. He had been a close friend of Washington and still enjoyed universal popularity, due to his role in the Revolution. Lafayette’s expansive national tour thrilled young and old. People bought souvenir ribbons and dishes, and saved items of clothing they wore to the balls held in his honor.

As the nineteenth century progressed, and the Revolutionary generation passed away, the war and its personalities took on a more romantic aura. Artists created busts and paintings of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and more for the public to admire and purchase. Both sides fighting the Civil War used the Revolution to bolster their part of the internecine conflict.

In 1876, the Centennial celebration brought the Revolution front and center. The colonial revival movement began in earnest during the last quarter of the 1800s. Even newly-minted Americans could buy furniture mimicking that made in the 1700s to go along with color lithographs of Mount Vernon with which to decorate their homes. It was during this time relic collecting started gaining popularity that people sought out bits and pieces of buildings, branches from trees, and other unlikely items that had a connection to a Revolutionary person or place.

We decided to close the exhibition with the year 1890. The one hundredth anniversary of the Constitution in 1889 and the influx of new immigrants from Eastern Europe prompted many people to create organizations celebrating their genealogical connection to the Revolution. The founding of the DAR in 1890, and their creation of a museum, brings the story of Revolutionary memory full circle.

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