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(Tea) Party on, Boston

A decade after fire, work will soon begin on interactive museum noting key protest that fueled a revolution

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By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / April 17, 2011

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It is a historical faux pas akin to Philadelphia losing the Liberty Bell or San Antonio forgetting the Alamo.

For nearly a decade, Boston has had almost nothing to mark the spot of the Tea Party, a protest known by elementary school students and tourists worldwide as one of the most significant events leading to the American Revolution.

But on Tuesday, the 236th anniversary of the “shot heard ’round the world,’’ that stunning gap in the city’s historical offerings will start to close as construction begins on a new Tea Party museum designed to not only commemorate the fateful event, but also to allow visitors to relive it. The museum, slated to open in spring 2012, will feature replicas of the three merchant vessels boarded by patriots, the Beaver, the Eleanor, and the Dartmouth, as well as movie-studio quality exhibits featuring a virtual Samuel Adams and King George III.

“Boston has never seen anything like this before,’’ said Shawn Ford, an executive with Historic Tours of America, a Florida-based company that will operate the museum. “We’re using a lot of state-of-the art technology so people won’t know if they’re seeing real people or illusions.’’

The museum is part of a broader plan to enliven Fort Point Channel, a historically industrial waterway evolving into a recreational and cultural district after decades of cleanup. Other plans include the installation of new docks and boat ramps, floating art displays, and barges to host musical and other performances. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has likened the effort to creating a Boston Common on the water.

The museum will be built near the site of the tea-dumping protest along the channel, where an earlier Tea Party museum burned after being struck by lightning in August 2001. Since then, museum supporters have struggled to raise money to complete a $25 million renovation and reopen. But last year, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority stepped up with $18 million, and the city contributed another $3 million.

Work has been underway for months on the merchant ships to be docked at the museum. Shipwright Leon Poindexter is reshaping a pair of vessels into the Eleanor and the Beaver and building a replica of the Dartmouth from the keel up.

“What we’re trying to do is make these vessels as historically accurate as possible,’’ said Poindexter, who was a technical adviser in the Russell Crowe movie “Master and Commander.’’

Poindexter, a naval historian and nationally known authority on ship restoration, is interested in the project in part to correct misperceptions about the Tea Party and the vessels involved. For example, he said, many people believe only one ship was boarded, instead of three. He also said the museum will reinforce that the famous protest was about more than taxes: It was a reaction against a political and commercial system that gave the British a monopoly on virtually every industry in the Colonies.

“It wasn’t just the idea of three pence per pound of tea,’’ he said. “It was the basic principle that they’d had enough.’’

The museum will be situated off the Congress Street bridge, where visitors will instantly become participants in the events leading up to the protest. By the fall of 1773, the tensions between Great Britain and its American Colonies had been building for years. A series of laws passed by Parliament levied taxes on everything from lead to glass to sugar, outraging local merchants and fueling unrest that boiled over in the Boston Massacre in 1770, when British soldiers killed five Colonists.

After a brief easing, the tensions built again following passage of the Tea Act, which reduced taxes on imported tea, giving British merchants a competitive advantage. A large shipment of tea arrived in November 1773, leading Bostonians to call a meeting to consider action against the British.

Upon arriving at the museum, visitors will get a copy of the handbill that announced the meeting, which was attended by thousands of people. They will then hear the voice of an actor portraying Samuel Adams, who explains the injustices visited upon the Colonists through the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Boston Massacre.

The reenactment will continue through the moment when the patriots don Mohawk disguises and board the vessels on the night of Dec. 16, 1773. Visitors will be able to board the vessels, throw tea into the harbor, and go belowdeck to hear actors portraying crew members discuss their fears about unrest in the Colonies.

After exiting the vessels, visitors will enter the museum section, where they will find exhibits on the event’s aftermath, including virtual versions of King George III and Sam Adams debating Boston’s violent reaction to the dictates of the British Crown and Parliament. A nearby wall will be inscribed with the names of participants in the demonstration.

The museum will also contain a theater with a 28-foot curved screen where visitors will watch a video on the onset of the war and be invited to sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,’’ written in 1831 by Harvard graduate Samuel Francis Smith. The experience will end in a tavern evocative of an 18th-century public house.

The museum’s goal is to be distinctly un-museum-like by enveloping people in the events and emotions of the time. “It’s not going to be a place where you walk through and read little cards on the wall under pictures,’’ said James Rooney, executive director of the convention center authority.

Rooney said the museum will also provide a venue for receptions for visitors to the nearby convention center, where he often encounters people interested in visiting the Tea Party site.

“We get the question all the time,’’ Rooney said. “ ‘Where is the Tea Party ship; how do I get to the Tea Party ship?’ It’s great to be part of bringing it back because for a long time we’ve had to tell people, ‘Well, it isn’t there.’ ’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.