The hit show “Hamilton” continues to dominate the Broadway box office and draws men and women of all ages and ethnicities. Its popularity challenges the common refrain that Americans have no interest in history. When I saw the show last November, I was inspired by its energy and the powerful performances of the cast. In addition, I was struck by the accuracy of the script. Lin Manuel-Miranda took very few dramatic liberties with the basic story of Hamilton and America’s founding generation. Somehow he turned a dinner meeting of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton and Washington’s farewell address into action-packed events.
As a public historian I advise many museums and historic sites around the country who aspire to engage audiences with their collections, architectural treasures and educational programs. I know that we would be very pleased if we could generate half the loyal and committed following that “Hamilton” now enjoys. Perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned is that history museums and historic sites are, in many respects, theatrical in nature. Every day we put on a show and our best sites use lighting, costumes, music and special effects to tell our stories.
Very few of us will win Tony awards for our efforts. But we can enliven our presentation of the past by recognizing that history can be entertaining and factual. Above all, history is about people and exploring their humanity—their strengths and flaws, their triumphs and tragedies—is what makes the past so compelling.