PHILADELPHIA — Visitors to the birthplace of America can soon climb aboard a life-size Revolutionary era privateer ship in the heart of the city's historic district, while staying firmly planted on land.
Builders working with the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia are crafting half of a ship — which at 45 feet can still impress in scope and scale — to invite visitors to learn a lesser known story of the Revolution through the lesser known 14-year-old James Forten.
The ship will act as one of the museum's primary immersive exhibits, explore maritime involvement in the Revolution and highlight Forten, a free African-American boy who served on a privateer ship and later became a prominent abolitionist and wealthy Philadelphia businessman. The museum is set to open in April just two blocks from Independence Hall.
R. Scott Stephenson, museum vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming, said Forten "represents a founding generation" that spans ethnicities, backgrounds and ages.
Philadelphia's Penn's Landing was one of the major maritime ports during the Revolution, but Stephenson said "many don't know African-American men and white men fought side by side on ships, and that they were probably the most integrated places in the (war) effort."
So, to help the public learn more about the war effort and allow them to easily walk aboard a Revolutionary era boat, the museum asked for a ship that wouldn't float. Building such a ship was a bit counterintuitive for experienced shipwright Mark Donahue.
"We're building a boat that won't float. It kind of messes around with our minds some of the time," said Donahue, director of the Workshop of the Water at the Independence Seaport Museum.
Donahue led some 20 people tasked with crafting the $175,000 replica in a nearly yearlong process. About one-thousand pieces will be transferred to the museum in August to reassemble the ship on site.
The exhibit will have an accessible ramp and builders will outfit the ship with lights to create the illusion of water and a speaker system to surround the exhibit with sounds of people working on a privateer ship.
Stephenson said the museum's exhibits will create a "connecting narrative" for historic pieces spread across Philadelphia and the nation, a narrative that is often lost, he said.
"Nowadays probably the most important single thing we can do is get people to believe any of this really happened," he said.
Stephenson said the ship exhibit centered on Forten's story and the museum's artifacts will explore "one of the great unfinished aspects of the American Revolution: making the promise of equality apply to all people."