FOURTH of July weekend is justly renowned for its celebrations of beaches, barbecues, baseball and, of course, fireworks. But if you're yearning for a slightly more soul-stirring way to celebrate our nation's independence, perhaps you should make a trip to the national Revolutionary War museum.
Unfortunately, you'll need patience. Though the idea was first proposed more than a century ago, a national Revolutionary War museum still does not exist. Thank the federal government for that.
For years, a nonprofit group has worked to create an American Revolution Center at Valley Forge, Pa., the place where, 18 months after independence was declared, Gen. George Washington transformed a collection of amateurs into a military corps capable of defeating the mighty British.
Valley Forge is surely the right location. The National Park Service already operates the Valley Forge National Historical Park, which includes hundreds of archaeological sites, extensive archives and even the stone building Washington used as headquarters during that fateful winter. But unlike nearby Gettysburg, Valley Forge is now more of a recreational park than hallowed ground. To remedy that, Congress in 1999 approved the creation of a public-private partnership between the Park Service and the American Revolution Center. The State of Pennsylvania put aside $20 million for the project, and the center's board, along with its chief executive, Thomas M. Daly, set out to raise $100 million or more. In addition, the center recruited an impressive advisory board , including historians David McCullough, Thomas Fleming and Richard R. Beeman. It commissioned the architect Robert A. M. Stern to design a 108,000-square-foot building that suits the landscape's contours while providing 30,000 square feet of galleries, as well as a theater, cafe and educational space.
The center planned to fill those galleries with a trove of items, including an enormous private collection consisting of letters from Valley Forge, a soldier's discharge signed by Washington, a gold-and-silver presentation sword that had belonged to Louis XVI, a large archaeological collection, muskets, uniforms, documents, historic art works and more. The Valley Forge Historical Society agreed to donate the tent used by Washington at Valley Forge. When combined with the Park Service's own collection, the center's assemblage of Revolutionary War items would almost certainly be the largest in the world.
Initially, everyone seemed pleased, with the center setting a target date to open in 2006. Then it all fell apart. While the reasons remain unclear, they smack of politics and turf battles.
In 2004, the House of Representatives passed legislation requiring Congressional approval of any Park Service partnership costing more than $5 million. Fearing meddling in its affairs, the Park Service ordered the center to stop raising funds — just as it was about to receive a $10-million gift from the Oneida Indian Nation, whose ancestors had fought alongside the Continental Army.
Then the Park Service, already constrained by shrinking budgets, began questioning its ability to sustain the extra maintenance costs associated with the center, which it expected to attract an additional 700,000 visitors to the park each year. Park Service administrators talked of scaling back the center by half. Partisans of the center, meanwhile, suspected the Park Service secretly wanted control of the museum and its collections.
Mounting his own rebellion, Mr. Daly canceled the center's partnership with the Park Service last fall and began exploring other options. In December, Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, whose state had ceded Valley Forge to the National Park Service only 30 years ago, asked for it — or at least a part of it — back. Writing to Gale Norton, then the interior secretary, he said the state would agree to swallow any operating shortfalls at the center. But in March, the director of the Park Service, Fran Mainella, rejected the governor's offer.
Such is the sad state of affairs at the site where, nearly 230 years ago, a ragtag bunch of rebels changed the course of world history.
Yet their inspirational story deserves to be told and retold. The new interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, could make himself a hero by ordering the Park Service to work out a deal allowing the center to go forward with its plans. The museum's estimated operating costs of $9 million a year could be covered by admissions and other income sources, like concessions.
While federal spending must be reined in, iconic Valley Forge seems an odd place to fall victim to small economies and petty politics. Considering the many earmarks members of Congress sneak into legislation each year, it seems there ought to be room for an earmark to finance something truly worthwhile.
A museum at Valley Forge was an idea whose time had come 100 years ago. Building it should not require the kind of stamina and perseverance exemplified by the site's famous winter encampment. There's simply no excuse for that.