The calendar said winter had yet to arrive in Boston, but the icy wind testified to the contrary. Fifes and drums coaxed a crowd into the meetinghouse, where Samuel Adams’s fiery rhetoric against the hated tea tax melted away the chill. Boots stomped upon the wooden floor planks. Hands pounded the pews. The audience expressed its disgust for the Crown’s tyranny by unleashing the 18th-century expletive: “Fie!” Soon the frenzied horde began to chant, “Dump the tea into the sea!”
With the rabble sufficiently roused, the angry mob was set loose upon the city — just as soon as we filed out of the rows in an orderly fashion. It wasn’t Dec. 16, 1773, but just another day at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, which reopened in June near the Griffin’s Wharf location where patriots boarded three ships and heaved 342 crates of tea into Boston Harbor.
The museum promises a “multi-layered experience” with high-tech special effects, replica ships, and reenactors in period costumes — and period accents. It’s very much a theme-park approach to history. (And with a cost of $25 for a one-hour tour, there are theme-park prices to match.)
Upon entering the museum, we were given cards with brief biographies of actual Tea Party protesters, identities we would assume for the next hour. I realized I was dealt a bad hand as I read about my alter ego, John Crane, the Colonist caper’s lone casualty. After being knocked unconscious by a falling tea crate, Crane was thought to be dead and hidden by his compatriots under a pile of wood shavings in a nearby carpenter’s shop.
He awoke hours later, however, and given a new lease on life, much like this museum itself, which was destroyed by a lightning strike in 2001 and set ablaze again in 2007 from sparks from a construction project on the Congress Street Bridge. Reborn after a $28 million makeover, the attraction features historically accurate replicas of two of the Tea Party ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, which were modified from wooden fishing vessels. (A replica of the Dartmouth will be built from scratch, starting in 2013.)
Our group, after being dispatched by Adams, boarded the Eleanor to a chorus of “Huzzahs!” Although warned of the risks — arrest, hanging, bombardment by British warships — we sons and daughters of liberty were not to be dissuaded as we sent several canvas-wrapped tea crates overboard. These replicas that splashed into the Fort Point Channel proved more buoyant than the originals and came equipped with ropes so they could be fished out quickly for the next tour.
After a trip below deck to explore the Eleanor’s crew quarters, our guide led us inside to watch three-dimensional holograms of a Tory and a patriot arguing about the destruction of the tea. In the next room, decorated like a Colonial parlor, portraits of a haughty King George III and Sam Adams suddenly sprang to life in a bit of audiovisual magic, and the two men exchanged verbal blows using dialogue taken from their written correspondence.
The lone Tea Party artifact we saw was the Robinson Half Chest, one of only two known crates that survived. Local teenager John Robinson discovered the partially submerged chest in the harbor muck the morning after the protest. Given that it had been hacked open and sent to a watery demise, the old box appeared to be in good condition inside a protective glass cylinder.
Our tour climaxed with a multisensory film, “Let It Begin Here,” that fast-forwarded us 16 months after the Tea Party to the start of the Revolution. The wraparound screen put us in the middle of Lexington Green. The floor shook as British troops marched. Quick bursts of air struck our cheeks as muskets fired. The drama was broken at the film’s conclusion, however, as a patriot with a wounded arm hanging limply in a bloody sling appeared on screen to ask the audience — “ladies and gentlemen and patriots all” — to join him in a sing-along of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” (“America”) as vignettes of every American icon short of amber waves of grain flashed behind him.
It’s a bit of star-spangled schmaltz, but the museum is a saccharine attraction intended to leave you on a sugar high. Our group appeared to enjoy themselves. Those wanting more nourishing historical sustenance or a nuanced examination of the Boston Tea Party and its enduring, and very contemporary political, appeal might be disappointed.
Anyone seeking a little more authenticity can find it nearby at the Old South Meeting House. No holograms here, just real history. This is the spot where thousands of Bostonians gathered on that December day in 1773 to listen to Adams before embarking on their political protest.