Art & Museums

Review: Hamilton: The Exhibition Explores the Room Where It Happens

Burr and Hamilton, the duelists.

By June Skinner Sawyers

On Friday afternoon, the eve of the opening of Hamilton: The Exhibition, a gleeful Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the blockbuster musical Hamilton, surveyed the room, observing the media scrum and the movers and shakers scattered among the attendees, and peering at the cameras pointed in his direction, but what really seemed to catch his eye was the space itself as he looked up with a sense of awe.

The next day, Saturday, April 27, the world premiere of Hamilton: The Exhibition opened in a free-standing, rectangular building on Northerly Island, located on the edge of 12th Street Beach and a mere stone’s throw from Soldier Field. Miranda compared the 35,000-square foot exhibition space as being more like “an airplane hangar.” It’s an apt description given that Northerly Island, a 91-acre man-made peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan, was the former home of Meigs Field.

The phenomenal response to Hamilton the musical—“No one expected the success of the show,” Miranda said—has now led to Hamilton: The Exhibition. “[The musical] awakened a general need to know about [the Revolutionary War] era,” he added. So while Hamilton the musical is the impetus for the exhibit—and the exhibition’s obvious target audience––it is Alexander Hamilton himself, and his milieu, that creative director and designer David Korins and his team are trying to recreate: History as interpreted through the present.

Hamilton: The Exhibition is such a big deal that Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot was on hand at the press conference to offer a warm welcome, admitting that she has seen the musical four times: once in New York with the original cast and three times in Chicago. Also present in the room where it was happening was historical adviser and Yale University professor Joanne Freeman—“I felt she was the real adult in the room,” said Korins––exhibition producer Jeffrey Seller and Alex Lacamoire, the exhibition’s executive music producer and arranger.  “We’ve been working on this for two years,” notes Miranda.

Hamilton: The Exhibition is also meant to be a thank you of sorts to Chicago by the Hamilton team. According to Miranda, more people have seen Hamilton in Chicago than on Broadway.

The exhibition features an audio tour narrated by Miranda and his Hamilton co-stars Phillipa Soo and Christopher Jackson as well as historical adviser Freeman. It plunges the visitor immediately into Hamilton’s world with an impressive mix of lighting, sound, music, multimedia effects, and historical artifacts as his short but busy life is unveiled in chronological order. If you have seen the musical, the exhibition is a must-see but even if you have not seen it or read Ron Chernow’s biography on which it was based, Hamilton: The Exhibition should still strike a responsive chord. It is also likely to appeal to Revolutionary War history buffs or indeed anyone with an interest in knowing more about the era and Hamilton’s life and times.

Among the highlights for this visitor at least was the recreation of the hurricane in St. Croix, which led a young Hamilton to leave his island home; a detailed replica of Hamilton’s new home, New York circa 1776, including a model of Trinity Church, where he is buried; and a multimedia display of the Battle of Yorktown, which visually recreates the unexpected American victory over British forces led by General Charles Cornwallis. The battle scene leads to another room, which displays a portrait of King George III and next to it, a tongue-in-cheek neon sign, “Awesome. Wow.” a reference to a lyric from the Hamilton song, “What Comes Next?” In another room, and inspired by another Hamilton song, “The Story of Tonight,” is an imaginary winter’s ball at the Schuyler mansion in Albany, New York.

Serious topics are addressed too, from slavery and the election of 1800 to the Federalist Papers and the national debt. Although quotations from the musical are interspersed throughout, the creators always strive to make clear the difference between fact and fiction. “The real Hamilton didn’t invite [Aaron] Burr to contribute to The Federalist essays,” a display panel reads, for example. “Hamilton’s offer in the musical is an effective way to contrast their personalities.” Among the historical documents are replicas of the long-barreled dueling pistols and letters between Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and her brother Philip Jeremiah Schuyler.

Perhaps the most poignant display is the recreation of the early morning duel that took place on July 11, 1804, between Hamilton and his nemesis—the then Vice President Aaron Burr––in Weehawken, New Jersey. Visitors see the short distance that separated the two men, a crushing reminder of just how personal, and deadly, a duel could be and where a fatal encounter could occur just a few feet away. To wit, Hamilton lived for 32 hours after leaving home to reach Weehawken while Burr lived another 32 years.

As visitors leave the exhibit they are left with the lingering question, “Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story?”

“The fights we had then we’re still having,” says Miranda. “We’re still having that fight as a country. It’s both frustrating and comforting,” he adds.

Hamilton: The Exhibition will remain on Northerly Island through September 8 before traveling on to other cities. For exhibition hours and more information, visit HamiltonExhibition.com. Buy tickets here. The timed entry tickets are $39.50 for adults, $32.50 for senior/military, and $25 for ages 4–14. The exhibition is also offering free group admission to all Chicago public school students in grades four and higher. For groups of 10 or more, contact Broadway in Chicago at 312-977-1710 or BICgroups.com.

Guest author June Skinner Sawyers is a writer and editor who has published many books on music and travel, including works on Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. June’s next book, co-edited with Jonathan D. Cohen, is Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen, to be published by Rutgers University Press on September 23, Springsteen’s 70th birthday. She is the proprietor of the Phantom Collective, a pub theater group specializing in history-based staged readings. 

Photos by June Sawyers. 

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