Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Paige Gibbons Backus to the blog. This Weekend marks the 244th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.
Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum
306 Congress St., Boston, MA 02210
We all know the holidays are some of the heaviest travelled times of the year and over my Thanksgiving holiday, I had the opportunity visit Boston for a day. When in the city for only one day, what do we go and see? Do you go to the U.S.S. Constitution, Bunker Hill, Faneuil Hall, or the Paul Revere House? Do you go to the colonial meetinghouses, the historic cemeteries, or just walk around the historic sections of the city? One of the sites that I decided to visit was the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. I heard many good things about it from online reviews and professional colleagues about the interactive exhibits and experiences available there. Working at an immersive historic site myself, I was definitely curious to see what they had done to make their history exciting to audiences, and despite the museum’s shortcomings, make it interesting they did.
One of the highlights of the Boston Tea Party Ships is that they did a decent job creating an interactive experience for visitors. After purchasing tickets outside, visitors receive an identity card and a feather, and are then invited into a room meant to replicate the South Meetinghouse. From there, first-person actors serving as tour guides take visitors through the planning, implementation, and effects of the Boston Tea Party. For example, Sam Adams rallied the crowd weaving in the events leading to the Boston Tea Party, even teaching visitors how to show approval or displeasure in a public setting, (to which I was hissing before it was cool). He even called on visitors with various identity cards to voice their opinion, bringing in interesting, albeit reluctant, audience participation. After the visitors were riled up, we donned our feathers in our hair and were lead onto the ships to commence tossing the tea.
Being out in the open air, I understand how difficult it is to create an immersive experience and while the museum tried, I think they fell short. Audio speakers were present on ramp heading down to the ship and on the deck of the ship itself. However, the level was so low you could scarcely hear it. After a brief interpretation of the events of the night, visitors walked single file below deck to get an idea of the layout of a merchant ship and where the tea was stored, then back top to “toss the tea”. Unfortunately, the mannequins were poorly designed and unrealistic, and there were no scents and smells below deck. That would have been the place for it. Additionally, I was excited about the fact that we would get to “throw” tea into the harbor. However, after learning that there were close to 350 crates of tea dumped, visitors had to take turns tossing one of two crates attached by rope, only to be pulled up again for the next visitor. The experience would have been much more meaningful had the entire waterside of the ship had 15-20 crates of tea that could be “dumped”.
After leaving the ships, visitors were led into the “museum”. I put the word in quotations for this article for I see a museum as a repository of historic treasures that visitors can explore at their own pace, look at artifacts, read information, and speak to fellow visitors and guides to learn about history. This was not the case at the Boston Tea Party Ships for the “museum” contained three rooms. The first consisted of holograms that discussed the reaction of the revolutionaries and the loyalists to the Boston Tea Party. When the scenario was over, without questions or discussion, we were guided to the next room.
The second room contained a wall of portraits and one of the few artifacts in the “museum”: one of the only surviving crates from the event itself. While it is an amazing artifact, it is treated more as a prize rather than an educational piece. Supported on a rotating stand, behind glass, with a barrier wall preventing visitors from getting a closer look is the historic crate. Visitors are not even given the chance for a closer look for they are only in the room for about 7 minutes before they are escorted to the next room. During that time, the portrait of King George III and Samuel Adams come to life in very Disneyesque fashion to explain the reactions of England and the Colonies to the event. There is no opportunity to look at the rest of the artifacts on display in the room.
The final room visitors are led to has a video about the Battle of Lexington and Concord, rounding out the Tea Party’s part in starting a revolution. While I appreciate that it was a new, modern video with same actors used throughout the experience, there was nothing innovative about the video. No lighting effects, no smells, no motions that would live up to the rest of the “museum’s” standards. Again, in this room, there were more artifacts lining the walls. However, after the video was over, visitors were thanked for coming, and invited to go to round out their visit in the gift shop and tearoom upstairs. The entire experience lasted about an hour, and cost $28 per person.
I had fun and learned a lot from the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum,
this is not a museum to choose when you have limited time in the city. First, a family needs to weigh the value of the experience with the cost of the admission. It would cost $92.00 for a family of four to visit. Unlike other museums, the interactive features are nice for families with children. Though labeled as a museum, it is more of a historic site/attraction. Nevertheless, after visiting all of the other sites listed at the beginning of this article, I would recommend museum professionals, and history enthusiasts alike, visit at least one if you are willing to spend the cost.