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New Boston Tea Party museum opens to a different world

After years of construction and setbacks, the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has opened to the public.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

After years of construction and setbacks, the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has opened to the public.

When the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum on Fort Point Channel was hit by lightning and burned eleven years ago, the words “Tea Party” referred only to that day in 1773 when American colonists poured three shiploads of tea into Boston Harbor in protest of British taxes.

But when the museum reopens on Tuesday, it may have some explaining to do. The uprising of a nationwide political movement in the last few years took the historical event for its name. Now, if you Google “tea party,” it’s more likely that the first half dozen listings will have nothing to do with the American Revolution, or a famous moment in U.S. history, or a stop along Boston’s Freedom Trail. But instead they will be about bailouts, taxes, restoring “founding principles of Fiscal Responsibility,” and the Tea Party political movement.

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It’s a new day when Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty share a web search with Michelle Bachmann, Marco Rubio, Christine O’Donnell, and Sarah Palin.

As the museum reopens, one question it faces is whether it can separate itself from a polarizing political faction that has the same moniker. Another is whether the museum and its leadership should even try.

“The Tea party movement is what it is, but there are no similarities and we don’t tell that part of the story,” said Shawn P. Ford, the museum’s executive director.

That may be true, although confusion seems unavoidable. While the phrase’s new meaning could serve as a boon for the museum, if tour groups from today’s Tea Party flock to an institution that tells the story from which their name was sprung, it could also push the historical moment into the background.

When asked what the words “tea party,” meant, a number of people walking near the museum site on Fort Point over the weekend referenced present-day politics first, history second.

“Republicans, funny enough,” said Jobert van Eisden of Albany, N.Y.

“I kind of think of Republican Tea Party ... or, little girls, tea party,” said Amanda Hurley, of Norwood.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the political party,” said Jessica Englund, of Boston. “But since I pass by here all the time, I’ve watched it progress into the historic reenactment of the Boston Tea Party.”

“Right now it’s the political party, but otherwise the Boston Tea Party of the 1700s,” said Lee Moreau, of Boston.

Contemporary Tea Party members do not think of themselves as Colonial revolutionaries, said Christen Varley, former president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, who has moved back home to Ohio but continues to serve on the steering committee.

“We’ve all known all along that it’s not the same thing,” she said. And, she added, “Most Americans still know what the Boston Tea Party was.”

But, she added, the movement and museum do share some common ground. She said the people of the Tea Party didn’t want “to participate in something you don’t want to participate in, to pay for something you don’t want to pay for.”

Actor David Stickney spoke to an early tour group.

David L Ryan / Globe Staff

Actor David Stickney spoke to an early tour group.

As for the museum, it was built to tell a historical story, not a political one. But the attraction’s re-enactors deliver a few historical lines any modern Tea Party supporter will recognize: “For the patriots to be silent is dangerous;” “How well will you protect our liberties?” “Righteous heaven will shine upon every attempt to secure liberty;” “They even taxed our playing cards and dice.”

The museum’s feature film, “Let It Begin Here,” ends with a patriotic montage of modern sweeping hills, farms, Mt. Rushmore, and a voting sign. The images are superimposed behind a man in colonial garb, belting out “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee.”

Varley said these attractions could easily lure modern Tea Party groups.

“We look at that moment as pivotal,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with looking at a movement with millions of people today and using that same name.”

Ford, the museum director, said that Palin’s staff called when she visited the city a few years ago. He said she wanted to see the site of the original protest, but there was nothing marking the spot to show her.

But he said he is “not at all” concerned about confusion between the modern movement and the historical moment.

“We tell the story of the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, of the fight, the struggle, for freedom,” said Ford. “We are not the Tea Party museum. We’re the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.”

Kailani Koenig-Muenster can be reached at kailanikm@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kailanikm.
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