Samuel Adams storms into the meetinghouse, and he’s angry. He pulls off his hat and waves his fist in the air, shouting about taxes and tyranny. Even our playing cards are taxed, he cries. Hisses and calls of “fie” emanate from the angry crowd. We, too, have had enough.
“What shall we do with the king’s tea?” he calls. The answer is clear.
And the rest, of course, is history.
Outside, it might be a regular weekday afternoon in the year 2013. But where I’m visiting, it’s always Dec. 16, 1773.
The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum reopened last summer after a devastating fire forced the old museum to close in 2001. The revamped and rebuilt version is an interactive, multimedia experience that crams costumed role players, high-tech exhibits, audience input, replica ships, a film and one historical artifact into a 60-minute tour.
I’m visiting the museum with my 3-year-old daughter, Chloe, who’s having fun, despite wondering why there are so many pirates in this place; the reenactors’ tricorn hats are throwing her off.
“They’re not pirates,” I whisper in her ear. “They’re patriots.”
Participation is the order of the day at the museum, and inside the meetinghouse, we’re each handed a card describing the life of an American patriot. Some people — thankfully, not I — stand to answer Samuel Adams when he calls on them. I watch a slightly uncomfortable-looking woman tell him that she refused to pay the taxes on her house’s windows in order to feed her family.
We heed Adams’s impassioned calls for action and follow a guide outside to board what the museum calls a “floating nautical exhibit”: a painstakingly crafted replica of the Brig Beaver, one of three ships that the rebels boarded by night to destroy 342 crates of tea in protest against British taxes. Bedecked with feathers to disguise ourselves as American Indians, we take turns shouting “huzzah!” and tossing replica tea crates overboard before hauling the dripping parcels back up onto the deck of the ship.
Next, it’s back inside the museum, into a darkened room that houses a re-creation of Griffin’s Wharf, complete with the sounds of seagulls and crashing waves. According to our guide, it’s now the morning after the Tea Party. “We are all now rebels in the eyes of the crown,” he says. Suddenly, holograms of two women — one a rebel, the other a loyalist — appear in the scene. This hyper-modern image seems like a strange addition to me, but I go with it, imagining that they’re ghosts as they glimmer against the black background and debate the events of the night before.
“You will rue the day when you sided with the king,” the rebel woman warns, before fading away.
In the next room, portraits of John Adams and King George “come alive” to argue the merits of the rebels’ cause. It’s a cool sight, but for me, the real star here is the Robinson Half Chest, which sits in a clear display case and slowly rotates on a pedestal. According to a voice-over, it’s one of only two tea chests known to have been recovered from the Boston Tea Party.
“Today, it rests upon the very body of water into which it was cast on that fateful night,” the voice-over says grandly.
Soon we’re ushered into the Minuteman Theatre, where we sit in rows to view Let it Begin Here, a short film that re-creates the events leading up to the start of the Revolution, from Paul Revere’s ride to the battle at Lexington Green.
When the tour officially ends, Chloe and I head upstairs to Abigail’s Tea Room, a cafe where we’re greeted by yet more costumed actors, this time a pair of young women who trade gossipy, British-accented stories about life in the colonies and how to properly serve tea. Our table overlooks the Brig Beaver, and (for an additional charge) Chloe and I share cups of tea and pastries while we watch another group of visitors toss tea crates from the ship.
The entire finely choreographed experience offers a whirlwind overview of the Boston Tea Party and its aftermath. The time constraints of a 60-minute guided tour mean that the museum naturally lacks the historical heft of a day-long jaunt over the Freedom Trail. And admission isn’t cheap. But it is visually beautiful, and we certainly had fun. Plus, every kid on the tour seemed to relish the opportunity to yell and throw things, and for parents, that alone might be worth the price of admission.