When Hamilton fever first swept the globe a few years back, it ignited a surprising cultural fascination with the history of early America—who would've thought the Constitution could be so cool? Portraying the life of one of America's founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, the Broadway musical trained the spotlight on a period of history that had been previously underrepresented in pop culture, but conflated a few facts in the name of entertainment. "Hamilton the musical was a 30-year-long story that was really about one little piece of American history. We had to take a whole bunch of artistic license in compressing the narrative because we were making a two-hour-and-40-minute piece of theater," explains David Korins, the mastermind production designer behind the show. To correct the record and expand upon what the musical introduced, Korins and the crew teamed up again to create “Hamilton the Exhibition,” a 360-degree immersive and interactive installation on Chicago's Northerly Island that opened last month.
Featuring 19 galleries spread across nearly 40,000 square feet, the exhibition offers a wealth of information, historical artifacts and re-creations, period clothing, and more inside a theatrical maze that is a choose-your-own-adventure of sorts. The exhibition is a departure from the play, but fans of the Broadway production will spot some visual cues shared between the two. "We sort of quote our show visually a little bit—there's a half brick wall and beams overhead in one area, and in the New York gallery there's a gangplank that patrons can walk down, which gives the experience of the feeling that the character of Alexander Hamilton has when he walks down the plank to a new land in the New York harbor," explains the Emmy-winning and Tony-nominated designer. "But the theater set doesn't change visually, so we tried to make it a tapestry of early American architecture, because it has to represent so many different kinds of places."
Creating a world for actors to inhabit complete with sound, lighting, costumes, and projections that will all be seen from a distance poses an entirely different challenge from creating a experience for visitors to walk through and explore up close. Korins and his team strove to construct complete environments that enveloped visitors ("I didn't want to make something that felt like a trade show") so that visitors feel like they go fully down the rabbit hole in the life and times of Hamilton, he explains. "If we had beautiful, realistic worlds with walls and floors, it would be very sad if there weren't any ceilings."
The exhibition is laid out to be explored either as a choose-your-own-adventure or as a linear passage through history. Through games and activities, visitors are invited to learn about topics like how to assume the state debt, or what it was like to invest money in the first national bank. "I think it has become the high-water mark for a new way to teach and immerse people in information-gathering methods," says Korins. Instead of reading in a textbook about what was going on in Washington's war tent, for example, visitors are placed inside of it, with 70 cannons trained at them for effect. And to better understand how the United States won the war at Yorktown, the scene unfolds by way of seven-inch-tall wooden carvings of Lafayette and Rochambeau moving across a magnetic table—a high point of the experience that Korins says turned out even better than how they expected.
Aside from coordinating the logistics of a show this large, one of the biggest challenges for Korins and his team was making the historical information palatable for visitors in 2019. "Lin [-Manuel Miranda] said to me, the amount of research we've done to make the exhibition is 10 to 20 times more than what we did to make the show," he explains. For historical accuracy, they called upon Joanne Freeman, professor of history and American studies at Yale, and Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law and history at Harvard, to serve as advisers and consultants, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History lent historic artifacts like clothing and slave shackles to the show.
"Hamilton has become such a deep portal into a conversation about early American history, and it has been a real cultural touchstone around the founding of our country," says Korins. "To be able to continue studying and researching, and to have the opportunity to go deeper and wider into that conversation along with my collaborators, has been life-changing."
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest