Yesterday I visited the new Boston Tea Party Museum with two friends (also current or former teachers). For $25, you get a one-hour guided tour/theatrical experience. You attend (and maybe participate) in the Sons of Liberty meeting where they decided to destroy the tea; tour the tea ship (and maybe dramatically throw a box overboard); witness some dramatized conflicts between King George and Sam Adams, and between ordinary Tories and Patriots in town. The whole thing wraps up with a viewing of the only surviving tea chest from that night (displayed somewhat hilariously in a rotating case that reminded me of the Home Shopping Network) and a movie about Lexington & Concord.
For such a small space with such narrow focus, it is undoubtedly one of the glitziest museums I’ve ever seen. They make liberal use of new holographic technology, which is remarkably effective. For several moments, we weren’t sure whether the Tory and Patriot women arguing on Griffin’s Wharf were actors or holograms. The Lexington & Concord film is stirring, with high production values; it wouldn’t look out of place on the History Channel. The ships are beautifully detailed (look for the rat hiding in what I guessed to be the first mate’s cabin). And our actors/tour guides were funny and engaging.
All that pomp added up to some real emotion. These colonists had incredibly difficult, scary decisions to make, and I felt that at several points along the tour. (When King George defended the Townsend Act as a unanimous act of Parliament, I found myself grumbling, “Wow, what a surprise,” just like I do while watching the State of the Union.) “History is so boring” is one of the saddest sentences I hear from my students, because it means they’ve lost the story part. I love any book, movie, or museum that makes history about what could have happened as much as what did happen.
But that engagement needs to be followed up with real learning, and that’s where the museum fell flat. Because it’s all first-person, there’s never an opportunity to educate from a modern perspective. I had so many questions! There’s a black Minuteman in the movie: was that historically accurate? How did African-Americans fit into this story? When the Sons of Liberty dressed as Mohawks because that was a “symbol of liberty,” what on earth was that about? For heaven’s sake, can we talk about the shortcomings of their “liberty”? (When a picture of a traditionally dressed Native American floated by during the movie’s rousing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” concluding montage, I threw up in my mouth a little.)
Not only that, but what about the ships? Were they built for this museum or restored? Were they the actual Tea Party ships? Even the website just says “authentically restored” — from what? The captain’s furniture wasn’t bolted down, the dishes were displayed in open shelves. This was designed with theater rather than authenticity in mind, but there’s no meta-commentary to say so, and that calls into question the authenticity of the entire presentation.
Overall, it’s more Disney than PBS. Go, but do a little reading on your own before and after.