CHICAGO—For audiences interested in American history, the camps can be roughly broken down to those who like to absorb the lessons via Hollywood feature films and those who tackle them in a Ron Chernow-length tome.
Hamilton: The Exhibition, a new interactive museum that debuted in Chicago this weekend for an as-yet undetermined residency, manages to appeal to both.
The exhibition is a spinoff of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster Broadway musical, which has since expanded to Chicago, London and toured in Puerto Rico. But it’s also a worthy stand-alone experience that you don’t need an understanding of the stage show to appreciate.
At the weekend ribbon-cutting for the exhibition, Miranda told The Daily Beast the exhibit fills in the historical gaps and inaccuracies of the musical as it explores the larger context of the nation’s origin story.
“With [the musical], there's only so much I can do with two and a half hours of your time, and I have to make everything rhyme,” said Miranda, who served as an artistic advisor to the exhibition.
“Listen, I couldn't even fit Ben Franklin in my show; I couldn't get the state of Pennsylvania in. But here, we can do a deeper dive on slavery in the north and the south. We can talk about Native American contributions, we can talk about women in the war effort. And you can go down all of those tributaries during this exhibit.”
The experience is an impressive, spare-no-expense endeavor that packs in the careful curation and historical accuracy of a museum with the striking visuals, punchy soundtrack and accessible storytelling of Miranda’s stage show.
Miranda’s influence is clear, though he insisted his main contribution was hiring the best people to “do the things we don’t know how to do.” In that case, the A-team includes the work of set designer David Korins and the historical knowledge of Yale professor Joanne B. Freeman, widely considered the foremost expert on all things Alexander Hamilton.
Built inside an airplane hangar-sized structure on the shore of Lake Michigan, the feel is not quite a concert hall experience, but not quite a typical museum experience, either.
There are replicas of artifacts like Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s dueling pistols, interactive features about Hamilton’s pre-Revolution New York City, plenty of reading material and no shortage of highly Instagrammable set pieces (a palate-cleansing room dedicated to King George foregoes historical accuracy for flocked wallpaper and neon signage, but it’s all to good effect).
The exhibition is scheduled to allow a set number of visitors entry at a time, but once inside, you can move at your own pace. Go at a whirlwind speed and you’ll get out in about 45 minutes; linger over every placard and audio piece and it will take twice as long (but it’s worth the time).
Like the stage production that inspired it, the exhibition excels at making a 250-year-old story feel relevant and even familiar without being so dry that it seems like homework.
History buffs will geek out on the exacting attention to detail—things like the level of lighting in Hamilton’s ship from St. Croix to the precise distance he and Burr stood during their duel—while audiences as young as fourth-grade will come away remembering something about the Battle of Yorktown.
While the $40 admission (with discounts for youth, seniors and military members) costs more than a movie ticket, it’s far more accessible than the musical itself.
The creators—already confident that the exhibition will delight—voice the hope that it could also help “reaffirm the importance of our democracy,” and frame the exhibit as a celebration of those ideas.
Is that an awfully idealistic ambition for what is, lest we not forget, an extension of an extremely successful and lucrative creative commercial enterprise? Absolutely. But Hamilton: The Exhibition thankfully doesn’t feel like a soulless cash grab. The cynicism recedes at bit when you see the ways in which the exhibition steadily makes the case that it’s trying to be a better version of the history lessons that preceded it.
The notable inclusions are the stories and contributions of women, of enslaved people and of Native Americans. Not only are they present, they’re contextualized in a way that makes it clear just how incomplete the story of the country’s founding is without them.
In one room that reimagines a Revolution-era wintertime ball among the political elite, life-sized figures of Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, the Comte de Rochambeau and others are positioned around the room. Visitors can point their listening devices at each figure’s placard to hear specific details about their life at that point in history.
On the perimeter of the ballroom is a figure dressed as a servant and labeled “unknown”—a composite of the many enslaved Africans whose stolen freedom helped build this country.
Instead of recounting in broad strokes the harshness of life for slaves during the American revolution, the audio instead challenges listeners to think about who this woman could have been—“Where was she from? Who did she love? What were her dreams?”—and how misshapen the legacy of our nation is because we don’t have answers for questions like these.
Miranda told The Daily Beast that his biggest insight when writing Hamilton was that the language he needed was contemporary because “the past is prologue in our country” and the fights we had during our nation’s founding are the fights we’re still having.
“The original sin of slavery is something we’re still grappling with, and its repercussions today,” Miranda said. “Every character in my show, except for George Washington, dies as a result of gun violence. We’re still deciding ‘when do we get involved in the affairs of others?’”
He singles out the part of the exhibition that covers the election of 1800, full of headlines that were written by John Adams about Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson about Adams.
“What’s there is every bit as misinformative as some of the misinformation we got in 2016,” Miranda said.” The election of 1800 taught us everything we need to know about every presidential election we're ever going to have. It was that ugly and that vicious. I mean, [Adams] printing a rumor that Jefferson died so ‘vote for me’—that’s shit that really happened!”
He added, “It's always amazing to sort of look at the past. I think it's important to look at the past, see what we've been through, and and see how we have emerged.”
Miranda expects the exhibition’s audience might share his competing feelings of frustration and comfort when it comes to understanding just how closely our present rhymes with history.
“My feelings on the fate of the country vary widely, from Twitter morning to Twitter morning, just like everyone else’s,” he said, laughing.
Miranda has felt the impact of Hamilton in many contexts. “I remember being so overwhelmed at the first Women’s March and seeing so many ‘History has its eyes on you’ and ‘Women are the sequel’ placards. When you see the lyrics of your show become shorthand in the national conversation it is truly overwhelming.
“That's been sort of the biggest surprise for me: how often it comes up in political conversation, how people use the lyrics from the show. When healthcare repeal went down and people said, ‘You don’t have the votes,’ it’s very surreal. And it doesn’t stop being surreal.”
The mood infusing the exhibition is a decidedly optimistic one. It ends with a room covered in the famous “History has its eyes on you” line from the musical. Having spent roughly an hour re-treading the hopes, mistakes and dreams of people who cared enough to get involved, visitors are given a place to reflect on how they might engage in civic discourse—at least before they hit the gift shop.