‘Hamilton: The Exhibition’ Immerses Visitors in American History

Emma Sulski | The PhoenixThe exhibit is located on Chicago's Northerly Island and opened April 26.

The newest addition to Chicago’s Northerly Island is officially open to the public. Hundreds gathered in the room where it happens as “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and scenic designer David Korins cut the ribbon for “Hamilton: The Exhibition” (1535 S. Linn White Dr.) April 26.

Produced by “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller, “Hamilton: The Exhibition” puts visitors in the eye of the hurricane as they coast from room to dimly lit room of the 35,000-square-foot exhibit. The miniature museum takes visitors on a journey of Alexander Hamilton’s life with plenty of references to Miranda’s Tony-winning musical along the way.

Lit-up lyrics from the show illuminate the overheads of doorways, guiding tourists and Chicago locals through Hamilton’s tumultuous political career and trying personal life.

The exhibit takes visitors back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Through displays, placards and artifacts, visitors get to see life through the eyes of American colonials during and in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War.

In one room sits an illuminated map with magnetized ship models that move in reflection of George Washington’s battle plans. Hamilton was Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War and the two grew to have a close, father-son like relationship.

Throughout the exhibit, carefully placed placards document the differences between historical reality and little things Miranda changed for the sake of convenience in the musical. For example, contrary to the musical, Hamilton didn’t actually punch the bursar.

While much of Hamilton’s life took place in Miranda’s home of New York, Miranda said he had no doubts about premiering the exhibit in Chicago, as the Windy City has come to love and adore the long-dead founding father. To date, more people have seen “Hamilton” the musical on Broadway in Chicago than in New York, according to mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot.

Visitors receive headsets as they enter the exhibit. As they visit each room, an audio tour recorded by either Miranda, Phillipa Soo or Christopher Jackson — who played Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton and George Washington, respectively, in the original Broadway cast of “Hamilton” — details some of the most significant parts of Hamilton’s life and American history to the listener.

Historical advisor and Yale professor Joanne B. Freeman supplements the actors, providing context on the American Revolution.

“We’ve offered a lot of information about the world around Hamilton, so this isn’t necessarily just the story of Hamilton,” Freeman said in a press conference April 26. “It really is Hamilton in his world, to give you an understanding of this really fraught, eventful period in American history.”

For those who prefer to listen in Spanish, the tour offers a version narrated by Olga Merediz, who played Abuela Claudia in Miranda’s first Broadway production of “In the Heights” and will be reprising her role in the upcoming movie.

The audio tour also features symphonic instrumental versions of songs from the “Hamilton” soundtrack.

One room contains animated cartoons of political figures that argue with one another over popular debates of the time, with headset audio perfectly synced to match.

Ribbon-cutting attendees included NBC’s “Today” host Al Roker and Lightfoot, who has unabashedly seen the show four times.

“[Hamilton has] sparked many Schuyler sister sing-offs in our kitchen, as our daughter knows literally every song verbatim,” Lightfoot said. “Just as the musical has done, the exhibition will ignite the curiosity of our people, of tourists and people from around the world who are going to gather here to see this history manifest itself in another way.”

From the letter that got him out of the West Indies as a child to “The Reynolds Pamphlet” in which he exposed his own extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds, Hamilton documented his own life before anyone else could, even if it meant risking his marriage and career.

“I wrote my way out,” one sign in the exhibit reads in warm golden letters.

The founding father spent his life perfecting his writing abilities, often lambasting his political enemies with cheeky and stylish prose, including the third U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr and second U.S. President John Adams.

Much like the musical, the exhibition doesn’t solely focus on Hamilton, but on the people around him, the environments he lived in and the parallels between himself and a budding United States struggling with its newfound freedom. As stated in the show, both he and his country were “young, scrappy and hungry.”

One of the final rooms features statues of Hamilton and Burr in their infamous showdown that led to Hamilton’s death and martyrdom. The statues stand the exact distance apart as the dueling pair did in 1804. A glass case between them holds the very pistols used in the duel.

Miranda attributed the creation of the exhibition to Eliza Hamilton, who, after her husband’s death, spent her remaining 50 years keeping his legacy alive by co-founding New York City’s first private orphanage and interviewing soldiers who fought with him.

“I think we’re here sitting in an airplane hangar because of Eliza’s efforts,” Miranda said.

A wall in the very last room offers parishioners the chance to leave a bit of their own legacy in the exhibit, as sticky notes are stuck to plaques that ask, “How can democracy do better?,” “What would you improve about America?” and “What is your wish for America?”

Like any museum, “Hamilton: The Exhibition” drops visitors off in the gift shop, which carries every form of merchandise imaginable. From Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton that inspired the musical to shirts, posters, beach towels, umbrellas, “I am not throwing away my shot” glasses and more, it’s Christmas come early for “Hamilton” fans.

“Hamilton: The Exhibition” is open through Sept. 7 and tickets start at $39.50 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com/hamilton-the-exhibition-tickets/artist/2592204.

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