Experiencing the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

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Sheila M. Green
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EXPERIENCING the Boston Tea Party ShipsSM & Museum

On November 29th, 1773 a handbill, produced by the Sons of Liberty, was circulated among the citizens of Boston and its surrounding towns.  It called for a meeting to be held in Faneuil Hall to discuss what was to be done about the “despicable tea” onboard the Beaver, Eleanor and Dartmouth docked at Griffin’s Wharf.  The handbill referenced an opportunity to protest “taxation without representation”.  The ensuing action by the colonists on December 16th, 1773 has been called “the single most important event leading up to the American Revolution”.

The original participants are long gone.  Most of the original landmarks of colonial Boston are gone as well, with the notable exceptions of such iconic buildings as the Old South Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, the Old State House and the home of patriot Paul Revere.  The Boston Tea Party ShipsSM & Museum will honor those brave patriots and will simulate one of the most consequential moments in American history.  The opportunity to daily re-enact this event underscores the universal message of man’s quest for liberty. The Boston Tea Party ShipsSM & Museum will perpetuate the understanding of that quest.

The Layered Experience

Experiencing the Boston Tea Party ShipsSM & Museum begins with a re-enactor passing out the Sons of Liberty handbill in front of the building, announcing the meeting and a call to arms.  Guests will then purchase their tickets, imprinted with the identity of a participant whose life they will follow throughout the museum experience.  The entire complex is a multilayered experience that will involve many opportunities for re-enactment and interpretation of the Boston Tea Party in the context of Colonial America.

The Meeting House

The guest experience begins in one of two “meeting houses” and follows the tense debate about the three ships in Boston Harbor, laden with tea still on board.  Governor Hutchinson has given orders for the tea to be unloaded. The colonists have prevailed upon him, unsuccessfully, to reconsider and send the ships back to England. By law, the tea has to be unloaded within 20 days, which would come on December 16th.  The time for action was at hand.

The “patriot” guests will be engaged by moderator, Sam Adams, who will walk them through “remembrances” of the onerous burdens that have been put upon them in previous years, including the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Act and the Boston Massacre.  The moderator and the audience will work themselves into a frenzy, while ship-owner, Francis Rotch, attempts to negotiate with Governor Hutchinson.  When it is obvious that there will be no reconsideration of the Governor’s order, the moderator will address the “patriots” with the words spoken in 1773, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”  This will be the signal for the “patriots” to don their Mohawk disguises (a single feather stuck in hats, purses, pockets, etc.) and to begin the march down to Griffin’s Wharf.  After exiting the meeting room, they will make their way down the gangway, shouting in unison, “Dump the tea into the sea!  Boston Harbor a teapot tonight”.  (From past documented history, we know that observers from the bridge and surrounding areas joined in this chant.)

Upon boarding one of the ships, either the Eleanor or the Beaver, another re-enactor will continue the story by pointing out the imaginary British war ships, under the command of Admiral Montagu, moored in the harbor.  The “patriots” will be encouraged to throw the tea crates over the side of the ship as an act of defiance. (This part of the re-enactment will be a high point of the experience, and provide a sensational photo opportunity.)

When the re-enactment of the “dumping the tea into the sea” is over, guests will be invited to go below deck where the crew lives.  The interior of the fo’c’sle will feature several bunks from which hands and feet are sticking out (one never sees a full-bodied person). “Patriots” will overhear the conversation going on among the crew.  The discussion will describe their fears about what is going on in the colonies, and what they are going to do when they get ashore, or go back to England.  When this part of the show is over, the “patriots” will make their way through the dimly lit hold of the ship, weaving in and out of the cargo of tea crates and furniture.  They will exit into the day cabin of the captain who is sitting at his writing table with his back to them.  The scratching sounds of his quill pen can be heard as he writes into the ship’s log about what has just happened above deck.  The cabin itself is outfitted in 18th century artifacts of the period.  At this point, the re-enactment on the ship will be concluded and the “patriots” will make their way from the ships to “Griffin’s Wharf”.

“Griffin’s Wharf”

“Griffin’s Wharf” will be staged for photo opportunities behind cutout figures of men, women and children in colonial garb.  At a signal from one of the docents, an appropriately sized group will be directed to the museum foyer where a re-enactor will speak about the tension in the city and the events of the Tea Party in retrospect.

Museum

This Boston museum tells the story of the immediate aftermath and the consequences that led to the “shot heard ‘round the world” that was the beginning of the American Revolution. The museum foyer features two audiovisual presentations on each side of the hallway from which British soldiers harangue the entering “patriots”.  The “patriots” will be called traitors and will be held at bayonet point and told to move along.  “Patriot” guests will then enter into the museum and be confronted with a video vision of early morning in Boston Harbor, with tea crates floating all around.  There will be an indication to go either left or right for one of two presentations, the Patriot point of view or the Tory point-of-view.

Each of these points-of-view is featured in a tableau setting.  The Tory setting is the comfortable living room of a Cambridge household.  On a scrim projection, a Tory woman rises from her seat and walk towards the audience.  She is sipping tea and talking about “those rabble rousers” who would be so insolent as to oppose their good King George.  The other tableau features a colonial woman cooking breakfast in a more modest, rustic setting while voicing her concern about her husband who “went off to do something” last night and has not returned.  She has heard rumors of the Tea Party event, and she is worried about what might happen if he is branded a traitor to the King.

The Robinson Half Chest

The audience will move around the scrim and take its place at a horseshoe-shaped viewing rail where they will see one of only two surviving original 1773 Tea Party chests.  The chest is displayed under a glass bell jar rotating slowly under a spotlight.  The presentation begins with the story of John Robinson, a young apprentice who participated in the Tea Party event the night before.  He finds the chest half buried in the sand just off Dorchester Heights (now South Boston).  Robinson picks up the chest and furtively carries it home. He knows that having the chest in his possession would be considered treasonous.

The chest is kept by Robinson and passed on to his wife, Nancy, who takes it with her when she moves to New York following his death.  Toward the end of her life, Nancy (now Grandma Holden) gives the chest to Solomon Shaffstall.  The provenance detailing the chain of ownership of the tea chest, including family photos and letters, is projected on the museum’s back wall behind the chest itself.   In the past, the tea chest was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution for the Bicentennial Celebration and, more recently, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.  The story of its incredible journey, unlikely salvation and eventual return to Boston, is told in a compelling manner using narration and representations of the articles of provenance that are in the possession of the museum.

The Debate Between King George III and Sam Adams

As the lights on the Robinson Tea Chest exhibit dim, the audience is startled by a voice from behind, saying, in effect, “This is outrageous!  This will not stand!”  The “patriots” turn to see the two portraits that they passed on entry into this part of the exhibit. The paintings of King George III and Sam Adams, leader and planner of the Boston Tea Party, come to life and a spirited debate between them will ensues.  Their debate centers on the violent reaction by the people of Boston to the actions of Parliament and the King. When the debate is over, the figures in the portraits return to their static state.

The Minuteman Theatre

Following the debate between King George III and Sam Adams, the audience is directed into a lobby area featuring a full-scale bronze statue of “The Minuteman”, similar to Daniel Chester French’s “Minuteman”.   The “patriots” pass a wall of honor, with the inscribed names of the known participants in the Boston Tea Party event of December 16th, 1773, and enter the Minuteman Theatre. Standing in front of a 28- foot curved screen, they feel as though they are part of the action.

In the Minuteman Theatre, the “patriot” audience continues its journey toward liberty.  The date is now 1775 and Paul Revere is waiting in Charles Town, on the opposite shore from Boston. He is looking for a lantern signal in the steeple of the Old North Church indicating the British are approaching “by sea”. When he sees the two lanterns, he mounts his horse and rides off into the dark (along with other messengers, including William Dawes) to warn the colonists that, indeed, “The regulars are about”.  (Historical footnote: Revere never said, “The British are coming” as everyone, at that time, was British.)  His mission also includes warning John Hancock and Sam Adams that the soldiers are coming to Lexington Green to arrest them and to confiscate the colonial stockpile of arms.

The scene reverts back to British soldiers getting out of their boats.  They are tired, cold, hungry and wet.  They are also confused and afraid as many of them, before this night, were simply doing guard duty, and now they sense they are about to embark on a perilous mission.

The audience will feel as though it has joined the Minuteman rebels as, from the viewpoint of the camera, it will be looking across Lexington Green on a foggy morning – in anticipation.  At 5:00 AM, the British soldiers arrive. The Minutemen and the audience hear the drums in the distance, before the soldiers come into sight.  The audience is joined by a Minuteman re-enactor, with a long rifle, who prepares them to stall the British advance.  Eventually the British soldiers break through the fog and march toward the militia/audience.  From the camera’s viewpoint (and that of the audience),  Minuteman rifles are lowered into firing position.  The British, under Major Pitcairn, order the rebels to disperse and train their rifles on the “patriots”.  The words, “Don’t fire, but if they mean to have a fight let it begin here” is heard from the Minuteman leader.  A shot rings out, now known as the “shot heard ‘round the world”, and the battle begins with firing from both sides.  (The technical effects in the theatre will guarantee the audience a peak emotional experience.) At the finale, the screen darkens and the following words appear: “The Boston Tea Party – the single most important event leading to the American Revolution”.

In the darkened theatre, a character appears and invites “Ladies, gentlemen and patriots from around the world, please join us in singing America, a song written here in Boston, in 1821”.  As the song is sung by a choir, on screen, words to the song scroll across the bottom of the screen for the audience to join in. (America was written by Samuel Francis Smith, a Harvard graduate, and was first performed at Park Street Church in 1831.  It was the de facto national anthem until The Star Spangled Banner was adopted.) During the singing of America, other images, including Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, people voting, people protesting and families celebrating the 4th of July, will be shown on the screen, in homage to the freedoms that were won as a result of the American Revolution.

The Tavern

On exiting the theatre, guests enter the foyer of the Sam Adams Tavern to sample and taste foods that would have been served at a typical Publik House of the 18th century.  The interior is rustic with a prominent fireplace and mantel upon which are placed the clay pipes of the day.  A talking portrait comes to life at various times during the eating experience to address a very surprised audience.

The Retail Store

Visitors, exiting from the museum and/or the tavern, make their way up the exit ramps and into the retail store where they have the opportunity to purchase memorabilia, souvenirs and keepsakes relating to colonial Boston and the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.  They can also view an exceptional collection of Boston Tea Party memorabilia from 1873.  At the conclusion of this layered experience, visitors will feel that they have thoroughly lived through “the single most important event leading up to the American Revolution”.