ASU history lecturer helps curate exhibition featuring historic early American documents, flags

"Flags and Founding Documents, 1776–Today," a museum exhibition that recently opened in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, showcases early American historical documents, including early state constitutions and the first printing of the proposed U.S. Constitution of 1787, alongside American flags, many of which have never been displayed before. 

The documents portion of the exhibition was curated by Arizona State University history Lecturer James Hrdlicka, who joined the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies in 2019. We caught up with him to ask about the exhibition, how it started and why it’s important. 

Question: How did the idea of this exhibition begin?

Answer: Dorothy Tapper Goldman, a philanthropist and collector who lives in New York, wanted to share some of the historic documents she had acquired over the years with a larger public audience. Dorothy’s collection is remarkable because, even though it includes many important and rare items related to the history of the U.S. federal government, it also has scores of rare state constitutional documents. Chronologically, the documents range from the early 18th century through the early 20th century.

Dorothy arranged for the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) to host an exhibition and started putting together a great group of people who could help her do that. Her passion for the exhibition and deft management of it at every stage has been the key. The NYHS and, now, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia have been enthusiastic and supportive from the beginning as well.

Q: How long did it take to put together the "Flags and Founding Documents" exhibition?

A: The "Flags and Founding Documents" exhibition people are seeing now took quite a while to put together. The "Founding Documents" half of the exhibition is something we started working on all the way back in late 2017. I began by assessing what was in Dorothy’s collection, what her general aims for the exhibition were and what practical limitations we faced related to the size of the gallery, that is, how many items we could display in a relatively small space. Over the course of a few months, we settled on a group of 42 items that collectively tell the story of American democracy and constitutionalism from the Colonial period through the turn of the 20th century. The goal was for each document to highlight some key moment or larger theme.

From there, the first order of business was to write the catalog that would accompany the exhibition, since that would take a while to publish and ship in time for the grand opening. I wrote the text between the summer of 2018 and the spring of 2019, which our terrific editor then helped improve and polish. Throughout this time, we worked with a photographer, who took incredible images of each of the items in the exhibition, as well as a designer, who compiled the text and images into an elegant book.

 If we want to foster constructive civic discourse in the present, we can’t ignore the complexities of the past.

— ASU history Lecturer James Hrdlicka

Throughout the fall of 2019, with help from the NYHS, I drafted the text panels and labels that would be displayed alongside the documents. Meanwhile, a team of people, led by designer Ken Nintzel, prepared the gallery. "Colonists, Citizens, Constitutions: Creating the American Republic" opened at the NYHS in late February 2020.

Unfortunately, the NYHS had to close to the public just a few weeks later. The documents remained there, and some visitors were able to see them when the NYHS reopened on a limited basis later in 2020.

The plan was always for the exhibition to travel to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia after its run at the NYHS. Those plans were delayed for a year. In that time, the museum decided to combine the documents with an exhibition of historic U.S. flags. Working with a dealer who specializes in the field, they selected a total of 43 flags. Each flag has a different number of stars, from 13 through 50 and even beyond. Thematically, the flags complement the constitutional documents extremely well. Aesthetically, too, the combination is great. The gallery at the Museum of the American Revolution is far larger than the one we used in New York. It just looks better to have the space filled. The people at the museum did an excellent job of respecting the integrity of the exhibition we developed while placing it in a context that makes it, if anything, more vivid and powerful.

Q: How did your research play into the development of the exhibition?

A: When I first learned of the opportunity to work on the exhibition, I was struck by how closely the subject paralleled my own interests. The book I’m writing now, based on my PhD dissertation, is on constitution-making in revolutionary America. A major theme of my work, moreover, is how closely connected state and federal constitutional developments were from the very beginning. Well, here was a whole exhibition through which I would be able to explore that topic from multiple perspectives and over a longer time frame. My familiarity with the Colonial, Revolutionary and early national periods provided a nice foundation. From there, I read as many state constitutions and other documents as I could. I also read widely in scholarly literature. I wanted to situate the documents we were displaying in their proper contexts. The goal was to help viewers better appreciate what makes them revealing and important.

Q: Was this your first experience in curating an exhibition? If yes, how would you describe the process?

A: This was my first experience as a curator, and for that reason I’m enormously fortunate to have had the opportunity. Since I’m trained as an academic historian, rather than as a public historian, I relied on a large number of people who are far more experienced and who could guide me through the various steps.

The collaborative aspect of working on an exhibition is enjoyable and rewarding. As academics, we tend to work as individuals. We share and discuss our work, certainly, but in general we aren’t working as part of a team. The people and institutions I worked with are truly world-class at what they do. The fact that everyone is relying on you to come through with your part is tremendous motivation.

The experience also gave me practice at conveying complex ideas and contexts to a wider public audience. On the one hand, you want to describe things clearly and concisely so people can easily understand the basic points. On the other hand, you don’t want to simplify things so much that you end up offering a distorted, partial understanding of the past. It’s a fine balance to strike, but it’s worth the effort to try. If we want to foster constructive civic discourse in the present, we can’t ignore the complexities of the past.

Q: In your opinion, what were some of the most interesting artifacts in the exhibition?

A: The most noteworthy single item in the collection is a Dunlap and Claypoole printing of the U.S. Constitution, produced immediately after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned in September 1787. After spending months locked inside during the Philadelphia summer debating the Constitution, the delegates knew that their efforts would all be for naught if no one outside actually liked the plan they had come up with. They immediately set about printing copies that people could read as they debated whether to ratify the Constitution. The Dunlap and Claypoole printing on display in the exhibition is extremely rare; it's the only copy currently in private hands.

Q: What are you hoping people will take away from visiting the exhibition?

A: Constitutional democracy is an ongoing process. Americans have been debating their fundamental laws for over two centuries, and there’s no end in sight. Over time, fortunately, many Americans who had previously been denied a role in this process have been included to a larger, if often still imperfect, degree. The exhibition should remind people that they, no less than earlier generations, should feel empowered to participate actively and responsibly in civic life and to recapture a broader sense of connection with their fellow citizens.

Q: Will the exhibition continue to travel?

A: To my knowledge, there are no additional exhibitions in the works. After their run at the Museum of the American Revolution ends in September, the documents will probably be enjoying a well-deserved rest.

For more information about Hrdlicka’s work at the exhibition, the founding documents portion is available to view online in the virtual exhibit. The documents are on loan from the Dorothy Tapper Goldman Foundation, which has also funded a Guggenheim Fellowship in constitutional studies annually, and the flags are on loan from Jeff R. Bridgman, a collector and dealer of antique American flags, textiles and banners.

Top image: The "Flags and Founding Documents" exhibit in the Museum of the American Revolution. Photo courtesy of museum

Rachel Bunning
rebunnin@asu.edu