If you were too busy with Game of Thrones or soaking up the last bit of sun before the never ending spring showers that truly launched us into May, Hamilton: The Exhibition opened on Northerly Island in Chicago April 27th, 2019.
From the creative minds of the Broadway sensation Hamilton, this new endeavor houses a 19 room exhibit intended to whisk audiences through interactive and cleverly designed spaces filled to the brim with historical facts in just 45 minutes. The aircraft carrier sized building boasts a gift shop, as well as plans for a café for visitors to partake in while waiting for their entrance time.
As Lin-Manuel Miranda said himself during the press conference on location the night before opening day, “It’s a choose your own adventure.” The exhibit is built for the audience and you are in the control seat. In the throes of adversity Hamilton creates a legacy, this exhibit reflects that back to you asking, what will be your story?
The best way to explain this to someone unfamiliar with the project is that it replicates a museum exhibit with Broadway musical overtones. Miranda’s lyrics and music are veiled over the impressive amount of historical telling’s that build upon Alexander Hamilton’s life and what life was like in colonial America that couldn’t all possibly fit into a three-hour performance. Producer David Korins describes the audio piece of the exhibit as a “mashup heaven” as you walk through. The symphonically remaster of the show’s score is a bit out of order from what fans are used to.
This new way to experience history is supplemental to the show, but not exclusive say the creators. It blends museum like interactive screens and displays, while also encouraging a deep dive into the historical context the musical was born from.
“It awaked this general need to know more about this era. I have teenagers on twitter being furious at me ‘it’s the anniversary of Yorktown and you haven’t tweeted anything to commemorate the occasion... And the fact that every day when I’m walking down the street I get parents that tell me “my kid is reading about history because they can’t stop singing your songs”. It has awakened this need to know more about this era and we wanted to create something that would answer that.”
This fully immersive walk through experience allows visitors to have their interests merged. Theater turned pop culture turned history lesson with worlds colliding.
So, why Chicago? Producer Jeffrey Sellers speaks to the press prior to the ribbon cutting and reveals that statistics show more people in Chicago have seen Hamilton than in New York City. With such a fandom present here in the Windy City, it’s no wonder this experiment exhibit has its beginnings here to launch this artistic historical endeavor. The appreciation for arts in our community is one of Chicago’s shining qualities. Mayoral elect Lori Lightfoot echoes this in her own words as well at the ceremony calling our world class city “a lover of great talent”.
“It [Chicago] attracts visitors from around the world. It is an important economic engine onto our city’s economy. And just as this musical has done, this exhibition will ignite the curiosity of our people, of tourists and people from around the world who will gather here to see this history manifest itself in another way.”
Lightfoot hits the nail on the head. Chicago loves the arts and our community is strong with curiosity and inventiveness leading the way to create new and exciting projects. Not only will this exhibit serve as a possible new model for expanding theater projects, but also encourages growth in collaborative programming and accessibility to those outside of the theater community.
The project’s scale was something not necessarily anticipated, but what was is the sustainable breakdown to fit into eighty freight trucks – the Broadway show fits into seven. When posed with the question of why the creators didn’t partner with a specific museum to build instead, they responded with the desire to sculpt the exhibit from free form in order to maintain an honest experience. The creators were able to think without pre-designed space in mind and weave and mold the physical rooms and walkways to their design, as producer David Korins explains.
“We were not prepared for the scale either. We started off thinking we might want to partner with a museum somewhere and then as we dug into what we hoped the experience would be we said ‘hang on a second – let’s take a step back. What is the blue sky version?’ Obviously we can’t make it three football fields in size, but you can ask yourself ‘how many people do we want to try to accommodate and what do we want them to feel as they go through this thing? And so, we started drawing rectangles on a piece of paper... and that was really because we wanted to be able to sculpt each one of the very important story points in Hamilton’s life in a realistically rendered [way] and [as] detailed as we could possibly get it. And someone who makes things every single day, when I walked into this thing I thought ‘oh my gosh, what did we do’. This is substantial effort.”
A particular challenge was to maintain the correct and necessary temperatures within some rooms to be adequate for displaying real historical documents from the 1700’s. This great consideration for preservation and respect towards these documents shows how much care was taken with many elements in creating the exhibit. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has partnered with the Hamilton team. Working closely with them, the creators explained the paper artifacts being very delicate and three dimensional artifacts, such as swords and shackles are being added in carefully. Many are there on site, including the reproduction of the pistols used in the dual of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
The historical consultants on this exhibit really are a blessing to helping illustrate Hamilton’s world and life. Taking into consideration great experts across fields to create this 360 experience. Historian Joanne Freeman highlights how the exhibition really helps to “humanize the founding generation”. Freeman encourages audiences to delve into the perspectives of these individuals, to see them as real people making real choices.
“Working on this exhibit we have been trying to talk about the contingency people didn’t know what would happen “to talk about the fact there are many many voices that needed to be added to that picture, and that’s one of the things this exhibit is doing beyond the musical. And that is we fleshed out Hamiltons’ world. … this is Hamilton in his world to understand this really fraught moment in American history.”
So how does one decide how much to share? How much of Washington’s story do we see? How much into everyone’s story do we go? Tom Kail, Hamilton’s director, creative consultant and deep collaborator on this project said to David Korins on working with this exhibit, “We should only do what we can only do and what we can do is tell great stories and make great environments”. This is very potent in regards to taking what your strengths are and utilizing them with other talented individuals to bring something to audiences that is fresh, enlightening and enjoyable.
So, why does this matter? The lasting impact that seems to be desired is the spark for inspiration and action. This unique perspective in regards to bridging the gap between those who like to go to museums and those who normally wouldn’t think to. Manuel has been a leader in closing the gap between pop culture and social awareness. Being an advocate for positive action is something Manuel focuses on a lot.
The 2019 impact is that history repeats itself and by analyzing the past we can learn and grow towards a better future. Every gallery holds five amazing facts the creators want you to know about the times Hamilton lived in. These are five things that resonate and reflect some of the issues we had at the founding of our country that we still face today.
The accessibility within the exhibit which is described as an audio based tour is the primary draw, but large font displays also are present and match the audio tour’s core points. The huge redeeming quality in this audio tour is the automatic transitions that occur from room to room, so even if you are not a fan of audio tours and those non-tech savvy, no touching the audio device is necessary to the basic experience. There are opportunities to listen and learn more at certain points throughout the tour, but as stated before it is truly a build your own experience. Whether it be via the tour or just to be surrounded by the music “it’s a chance to go down all these avenues you can’t go through in a linear fashion” (Manuel) or that have been cut for time in a musical.
Another key to this exhibit is the accessibility. Manuel confirms that the audio tour which features him and others from the original Broadway cast including Phillipa Soo (Eliza) is also available in Spanish. The Spanish version still has Manuel speaking in your ear, as well as the incomparable Olga Merediz, who played Abuela Claudia in Manuel’s original production of In The Heights and slated to also be in the film being created this summer. There are additionally no stairs in the exhibit itself, although some turns and hallways might be a little cramped – it’s overall wheelchair and disability friendly. There is also closed captioning on the video segments as well. One particular segment that Manuel is excited to share with audiences is the Battle of Yorktown, which transports you to General Washington’s tent. A Chicago cartoonist illustrates a multi-media tabled map in a way that is just incredible, says Manuel.
The exhibit timeline is still to be determined, as well as additional programming that will come to fruition from this project. The Hamilton creative team seem very excited to show their project with audiences and are hopeful that more opportunities and possible future partnering. Admissions to the exhibit for Chicago Public School groups is free and further programming has room for expansion. The team I’m sure are already devising new and illuminating ways to share this with more people in a powerful way - the exhibit itself is structured not only to be supplemental, but for those who just want to know more history. These programs will be continued to discussed while the tour is refined, but it will serve as an incredible supplement to EduHam says Manuel. The Hamilton Education program utilizes curriculum based history lessons in public schools and partners with the Broadway production to create unique opportunities for students. This exhibit will provide not only great selfie and photo opportunities for students and adults alike, but it continues to bridge the gap between students and the theater community. I am thrilled the Hamilton franchise continues to focus on closing this divide in unique immersive ways.
In regards to the franchise as a whole, there seems to be a lot of unknown pieces or at least it being held close to the chest for now until initial public response to the project happens. New merchandise has been added to the gift shop that you are spit out into after the exhibit – a strategy that makes sense for any popular conglomerate. Many Chicago based items, as well as summer products fill the shelves. While you can still purchase some staple tee-shirts and magnets, there are specific Hamilton: The Exhibition based items from coloring pencils to mugs and other miscellaneous items that would not necessarily be found behind the counter at the CIBC Theater. While no official statistics or plans for this merchandise was divulged like if these products would filter into other markets, everyone I spoke with unofficially were so incredibly kind and excited to be there- special shout out to Peggy holding down the front entrance like a champ!
The scale of this exhibit, while impressive, sits on Northerly Island’s back lot and is a bit of a hike to get to. A helpful shuttle from Soldier Field and Museum Campus takes visitors to the site with ease and runs about every 10 minutes. I strongly recommend this having made the mistake of taking the CTA then the half mile walk from Adler Planetarium. If you have no idea where Northerly Island is, this Chicago Tribune article gives you the complete details on locating this massive immersive experience.
The run of this exhibit is unknown, but you won’t want to miss this. Truly a new addition to creativity breading new ways to learn and grow from the arts. “Ideas are a dime a dozen, execution of them is everything,” says set designer and creative director for the exhibit David Korins. What an apt response to reflect the determination and dedication to creating an honest education and engaging experience! See for yourself this summer at Hamilton: The Exhibition in Chicago on Northerly Island.
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!