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‘Hamilton: The Exhibition’ an immersive history lesson beyond the musical

Larger-than-life busts of George Washington Cabinet members (from left to right: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Atty. Gen. Edmund Randolph), are part of "Hamilton: The Exhibition," opening in April 27 at Northerly Island.| Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

With its unique blend of music, dance and history lesson, the musical “Hamilton” proved to be something new and innovative for the stage. Now the team behind that mega-hit has created “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” touted as something else new and innovative.

Needless to say, expectations are running high for this collaboration from the creative minds behind the groundbreaking “Hamilton”: creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, creative director and set designer David Korins, producer Jeffrey Seller and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire.

But does the general public want more Hamilton? That’s the question that will be answered as the exhibit makes its debut in Chicago.

‘Hamilton: The Exhibition’

When: April 27-Sept. 8

Where: Northerly Island, 1535 S. Linn White Dr.

Tickets: $25-$39.50

Info: hamiltonexhibition.com

About two years ago, the idea for a more detailed look at the life and times of Alexander Hamilton began to germinate, says Seller. Miranda has always acknowledged the fact that he’s a dramatist and not a historian; he took artistic license with Hamilton’s life in order to tell the story he wanted for the stage.

“We were struck by some of the questions that the show asks but doesn’t fully answer,” Seller says. “For example, what was Alexander Hamilton actually doing at the trading desk at age 15 in St. Croix that gave him the tools he would later employ as Secretary of the Treasury? Or how did Washington and his troops actually win the Battle of Yorktown?”

Housed in a temporary building at Northerly Island, “Hamilton: The Exhibit” is billed as a “360-degree, immersive” experience that draws on the life and times of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton and is an outgrowth of the globally successful 2015 B
Housed in a temporary building at Northerly Island, “Hamilton: The Exhibit” is billed as a “360-degree, immersive” experience that draws on the life and times of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton and is an outgrowth of the globally successful 2015 Broadway musical penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

These questions and many more will be explored in “Hamilton: The Exhibition.” To bring more depth and an academic accuracy to the museum-quality exhibit, Yale University historian Joanne Freeman and Harvard law professor and historian Annette Gordon-Reed served as consultants.

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The exhibit is nestled in a massive 27,000-square-foot, climate-controlled structure on Northerly Island near the museum campus. (A trolley will be available to shuttle people to and from nearby parking lots.) Tickets will be timed, with 75 people allowed to enter every 10 minutes.

Through visuals, interactive exhibits, orchestral music and an audio guide narrated by Broadway “Hamilton” actors Miranda, Phillipa Soo (Eliza Schuyler) and Chris Jackson (George Washington), the 360-degree immersive exhibit is a portal to a deeper conversation about the founding of our country.

A replica of a statue of King George III, wrapped in plastic, part of “Hamilton: The Exhibition.” In 1776, following a reading of the Declaration of Independence, a group of New Yorkers descended on Bowling Green in lower Manhattan and pulled down the sta
A replica of a statue of King George III, wrapped in plastic, part of “Hamilton: The Exhibition.” In 1776, following a reading of the Declaration of Independence, a group of New Yorkers descended on Bowling Green in lower Manhattan and pulled down the statue. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

When it came to designing the exhibit, Korins says he was “like a kid in a candy store” as he tried to figure out how to tackle this expansion of the Hamilton story in new and exciting visual ways.

Korins says he and his team move well beyond the usual information panels and static dioramas. The 18 rooms in the exhibit are filled with large sculptures, installations and interactive pieces along with artifacts, some of which have historical significance, while others are personal items of everyday life at the time — ranging from manuscripts and weapons to clothing, tools and utensils.

As an example of what’s in store, Seller offers up George Washington’s war tent and that aforementioned Battle of Yorktown. In this portion of the exhibit, visitors will find what he calls “a giant Risk board,” a reference to the strategy board game.

An artist’s rendering of one of the 18 “rooms” featured in “Hamilton: The Exhibition” at Northerly Island. | Courtesy David Korins Design
An artist’s rendering of one of the 18 “rooms” featured in “Hamilton: The Exhibition” at Northerly Island. | Courtesy David Korins Design

“Like the game, we show all the moving pieces using animation as to how Washington, Rochambeau and Lafayette with Hamilton cut off the British Gen. Cornwallis and his troops to win Yorktown,” Seller says. “Our goal has always been to make this informative but also entertaining.”

Korins says he has been profoundly affected by the stories from this important time in history; he feels a certain kinship with these great men he has gotten to know so well via the musical and now the exhibit.

“They were so articulate and able to put down grand ideas and will these ideas into existence,” he says. “One of the great challenges in creating this exhibit was taking those ideas and those principles and those stories and filtering them through my own artistic sensibility.”

One of several handmade, historically accurate scale model of a personal building from Alexander Hamilton’s life in New York. | Courtesy David Korins Design
One of several handmade, historically accurate scale model of a personal building from Alexander Hamilton’s life in New York. | Courtesy David Korins Design

The exhibit is for everyone: those who have seen the musical and those who haven’t, says Korins. It is also completely bipartisan, he adds: “The founding fathers were complicated and complex and fell on both sides of the aisle.”

Korins hints at but wouldn’t elaborate on a surprise waiting in the final section of the exhibit: “It’s a special, incredible treat. Something you will only be able to do here at what is a really one-of-a-kind experience.”

“Hamilton: The Exhibition” will tour around the country after its run in Chicago. While Seller and Korins want the exhibit to entertain, they both feel there are deeper lessons to take away, especially in today’s political atmosphere.

The exhibition’s giant steel structure for “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” on Chicago’s Northerly Island is pictured in the distance during its construction phase on April 9. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
The exhibition’s giant steel structure for “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” on Chicago’s Northerly Island is pictured in the distance during its construction phase on April 9. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“I hope people will get a renewed respect for the founding of our country, for truth, for words, for facts,” Korins says. “I hope it will ignite a conversation about ideas and about what it means to be an American and a citizen of the world.”

Adds Seller: “I think right now this exhibit reminds us why our democracy is so special, unique and worth holding on to. This is a celebration of what brings us together even through our disagreements.”

Chicago Public Schools can make a free group reservation for students in 4th grade or above during the school year. A study guide for teachers also will be available.

The design team for “Hamilton: The Exhibition” created a handmade, scale version of Lower Manhattan to explore the deeper world that Hamilton immersed himself in when he arrived in New York Harbor from St. Croix. | Courtesy David Korins Design
The design team for “Hamilton: The Exhibition” created a handmade, scale version of Lower Manhattan to explore the deeper world that Hamilton immersed himself in when he arrived in New York Harbor from St. Croix. | Courtesy David Korins Design

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

Ticket holders have several transportation options to get to “Hamilton: The Exhibition” at Northerly Island:

Parking: Street parking is available on Solidarity Drive, but is subject to availability. The Adler Planetarium Lot costs $11 to $20 per day. The Soldier Field North Garage charges $20 to $45. Special events at Soldier Field and the Huntington Bank Pavilion may affect availability. A trolley connects the Soldier Field and Adler parking lots to the Park District building near the exhibit.

Bus: The CTA’s #146 Inner Drive/Museum Campus bus picks up on State Street in the Loop and the L station at Roosevelt. After Memorial Day, the #130 Museum Campus bus runs a similar route. Exit the bus at Solidarity and Linn White drives near the Adler Planetarium.

Ride share: Set the drop-off point to 1535 S. Linn White Dr.

L train: Take the Red, Orange or Green lines to the Roosevelt CTA station. Transfer to the #146 bus at State and Roosevelt, and take to the museum campus.

Bike: Public bike racks are available at the Park District Building, just north of the exhibit. The nearest Divvy station is at the end of Solidarity Drive at the Adler Planetarium.