Fleshing Out a Founding Father
Mount Vernon Additions Provide New Entree to George Washington's World
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
A decade ago, the people who run Mount Vernon noticed many of their visitors knew little more about George Washington than that he was the country's first president.
Beginning Friday, visitors there will be able to learn much more about him in two new buildings. On their way to the historic mansion, they'll pass through an orientation center where they will get history about Washington and his home (one short film is narrated by game show host Pat Sajak). And on their way out, they will pass through an extensive museum and education center.
The new exhibits include a $5 million movie about Washington's military career, a list of his slaves and the will in which he freed them, the shoe buckles he wore to his inauguration, the family Bible, a look at his early career as a surveyor, his bloody defeats during the French and Indian War, interactive maps showing Revolutionary War battles, a copy of Martha Washington's gold wedding dress, Washington's ivory dentures, a reproduction of his coffin and three re-creations by forensic scientists showing what Washington probably looked like at ages 19, 45 and 57.
Both new buildings will be mostly underground so as to not detract from the mansion. And the exhibition hall, which includes the museum and education center, will have historically correct Hogg Island sheep grazing on the ground that covers it.
In the past, Mount Vernon concentrated on Washington's life on the plantation, his family, his slaves. The new exhibits flesh out other facets -- politics, two wars, his days as a spymaster, his role in the making of the Constitution and even his excruciating dental history.
In addition to the artifacts, dioramas and tableaux, a great deal of Washington's story is told through 14 films commissioned by Mount Vernon. A $5 million, 18-minute video, "We Fight to Be Free," produced by Greystone Films, portrays a heroic Washington in reenactments of the French and Indian War and the night crossing of the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War. To humanize him, another film shows Washington flirting with the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, whom he later married. That film, produced by the History Channel and narrated by actress Glenn Close, chronicles Washington's 40-year marriage.
Twenty new galleries feature traditional museum fare, sculpture, paintings and a number of swords. In one gallery, which will be kept cooler than the others, visitors can study a re-creation of a soldiers' hut at Valley Forge, Pa. It focuses on the brutal conditions that Washington and his soldiers endured during the winter of 1777-1778, with the temperature some days hovering at 6 degrees. The starving soldiers look like skeletons. The "snow" has bloody footprints. Beneath a navy wool blanket in the hut, a sleeping soldier's chest rises and falls. Then he moans and coughs. Nearby, a model of Washington, the commander of the Continental Army, sits on his horse Blueskin. Though historians tell us he, too, was dispirited by the predicament, he manages to project determination in trying to rally his troops.
James C. Rees, executive director of the estate, says Mount Vernon now draws a million visitors a year -- about as many as the building's worn wooden floors can stand, and even with the temporary closing of the National Museum of American History on the Mall, he doesn't want too many history buffs to visit at the same time.
Mount Vernon's new look is not intended to draw more visitors. The new attractions, Rees says, "help us spread out the visitors." He hopes people will stay longer, learn more and want to come back.
In the past, a typical visitor spent 2 1/2 hours at Mount Vernon. Now, that could double.
The administrators of Mount Vernon raised $112 million in private funds for the new look. Just under $60 million was spent for the orientation center and the museum and education wing. Both were designed by the Baltimore firm GWWO Inc./Architects.
Many of the new videos and exhibits were designed to meet what Mount Vernon guides consider the ultimate test: holding the attention of an eighth-grade boy.
"He's our most challenging visitor," says Rees. "It is hard to make Washington cool, and they don't want to pretend they are interested."
Rees said he thinks the new facilities, particularly the education center, have enough bells and whistles to keep such a visitor engaged. Among them, he cites:
- A laboratory that is designed to look like a set from the popular television show "CSI," showing how forensic detectives re-created the face of Washington at various stages of his life. There are foam castings of body parts -- a few heads, arms, legs and hands -- on the stainless steel counters.
- A section on Washington's childhood that features an animated cartoon figure that could be a "Peanuts" refugee. It moves across the gallery wall pointing out highlights of the young Washington's life.
- One film gives a fast-paced history of the battles, including those at Trenton, N.J., and Yorktown, Va. To cap off the action, as a cannon booms, the seats in the theater vibrate. And snow -- a mixture of water and soap bubbles -- falls as Washington leads his army across the frozen Delaware. It may leave a light dusting on visitors' clothes.
- Washington's dentures -- probably the most popular artifact at Mount Vernon -- are given a display worthy of the Hope Diamond. This section includes a timeline of Washington's dental problems and his letters of complaint to his dentists.
There are also more serious exhibits that are not aimed at eighth-graders.
Special treatment is given to the famous 1785 terra-cotta bust by legendary French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, based on an actual plaster cast of Washington's face. It's on a tall pedestal so that visitors will have a sense of what it was like to face the 6-foot-3 Virginian.
The museum component is 6,000 square feet of decorative arts, books and manuscripts. It shows off Washington's dinner plates, the ones he used for his lavish 4 p.m. Thursday dinners in Philadelphia, often with members of Congress at the table. The visitor will learn that the Washingtons loved to entertain. They had 677 overnight guests in one year. There's also a case with his traveling razor and a handwritten manuscript from a speech he delivered in 1783 at Newburgh, N.Y., when he quelled a plot by disgruntled Army officers to overthrow Congress.
Washington's last will and testament, an original on loan from the Fairfax County Circuit Court, is housed in this area, with its instructions that the slaves would be free when Martha Washington died.
There is a section dedicated to what the organizers call "The Dilemma of Slavery." It is stripped down, less decorative than some of the other galleries but animated by the personal stories of the slaves of Mount Vernon, who at one point numbered 316. A tape recites the names of the slaves and their jobs.
Throughout the new buildings, there are paintings from important American museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art lent four portraits, including a 12-foot-wide canvas of Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. A special gallery, installed until next August, is dedicated to the friendship of the two generals.
"We are not raiding the mansion" of any of its treasures, Rees says. In the past the house had only 100 rotating artifacts; the new galleries have 700 objects, some never displayed before. These include an easy chair that belonged to Washington's mother, Mary Ball Washington. There are also many letters; Washington was a prolific correspondent, and 25,000 of his letters are still in existence.
Each of the new buildings is named after one of the primary donors for the new expansion.
The first building visitors will enter is the Ford Orientation Center, funded principally by the Ford Motor Co. Fund, which gave $7 million to the capital campaign and whose founder gave Mount Vernon its first firetruck, in 1923.
It will give visitors a bird's-eye view of Mount Vernon: A 10-foot-high miniature of the estate house, with 700 reproduced features and 16,000 shingles, resides in the orientation hall. The 22-room model offers a view of the third floor, including the garret chamber where Martha Washington withdrew to mourn and burn the couple's letters after her husband's death. The actual floor is normally closed to visitors.
The second new building, which visitors will enter after touring the historic house, is called the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, built with a $24 million gift from the late media baron's Las Vegas-based foundation. Most visitors will see it as a single museum, though the Mount Vernon staff considers part of it a museum and part of it an education center.
Other donors to the new buildings include Robert H. Smith and Clarice Smith, and the Mars candy family.
The imposing house on the Potomac River was the center of much of Washington's life. He acquired the homestead in 1754 (the property was granted to his great-grandfather in 1674). The mansion has been owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association since 1858 and is managed with private funds.