Additions Give Mount Vernon The Feel of Yesterdayland

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Museum people talk a lot about the experience these days, by which they mean an idealized visit by an average visitor that delivers a perfectly entertaining educational message. But the ubiquity of the term suggests a profound unease with what museums are hawking, a worry that if every visit isn't properly shaped and crafted, the public may leave without fully comprehending, enjoying or remembering the thing the museum exists to preserve and perpetuate.

The people who own Mount Vernon, the wood-clad 18th-century home of the country's paterfamilias, have just sunk $110 million into improving the Mount Vernon experience. They've built a new orientation center showing what is billed as "an action-adventure film." They've also added a building filled with both traditional museum exhibitions -- papers, housewares, clothing -- and a trendy interactive educational center that features a theater inside of which genuine fake snow will fall on viewers. The orientation center prepares visitors for the mansion, while the education and exhibit building reinforces the Mount Vernon message before leading them, via a glass passageway, to the cafeteria and gift shop.

Both buildings are built mostly underground to preserve views and mute the dissonance of contemporary architecture intruding on hallowed historical ground. Underground spaces are becoming more common in history-saturated landscapes: The past, it seems, is turning us into moles. The unfortunate new visitors center planned at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be built underground; so, too, the budget-busting visitors center under construction on the east side of the U.S. Capitol.

To be more precise, it's not just the admirable desire to preserve vistas when we add to historical properties that turns us into moles. We might not be building so much space underground if we weren't terrified that our historic buildings and monuments were losing their mystique with an increasingly ignorant public.

At the old Mount Vernon, you bought your ticket, entered through a little white gate and wandered, at leisure, up a gravelly path to the main house. In the new Mount Vernon experience, you buy your ticket in a verdant little hollow, framed by glass and brick buildings, and a sloping paddock that covers the museum. After you've shelled out the entry fee (about $40 for a family with two kids), you enter a pleasant lobby with gleaming limestone floors and a semicircular wall of glass looking out onto a garden.

And there, striding toward you, the very image of rude good health and high spirits, is a statue of George and Martha, hand-in-hand with their grandchildren. This is not the George Washington you're expecting, not the American Cincinnatus with grim lips stretched tight over a mouthful of fake teeth. He's positively busting with hospitality, and those two kids sure do humanize the guy. It all feels very familiar, very something . . .

Very Disney. After a moment of cognitive dissonance, you realize that this statue is an exceptionally close relative to the famous Walt and Mickey statue that stands before the Cinderella Castle at Disney World. But unlike the Disney experience -- in which Walt and his little buddy greet you in front of the castle -- the Mount Vernon experience has not yet revealed Mount Vernon, except in the form of a one-twelfth-scale model in the lobby. The building itself is held in reserve while the visitor is prepared to see it.

The new statues and house model are part of a careful dramatic shaping and preparation of the approach to the main house; but the idea behind them isn't without precedent. Any owner of a proper stately home in the 18th century -- including Washington himself -- would have been keenly alert to the revealing of his home, to its gradual unveiling in small glimpses along tree-lined allees or through a game of peekaboo with the hedges and fences. Great homes weren't meant to appear all at once, like slides on a screen, but with an unfolding drama.

Unfortunately, while the new buildings at Mount Vernon are retiring, they are essentially obligatory -- a paradox of the new layout. They are an elaborate entry and exit, two portals that channel the flow of visitors in and out of the estate. Despite the warmth and professional polish of the spaces, you feel as though you're being herded, and you're being herded through 21st-century spaces to prepare you for an 18th-century one. The whole "experience" mimics a certain understanding of memory: That first your mind must be ready to receive information, through a preexisting framework (you get this in the orientation center); and then, after you've seen the thing, it must be reinforced and clarified (you get this in the museum and education center).

But what if you just want to see Mount Vernon?

"There are various relief valves," says Alan Reed, president of GWWO Inc./Architects, which designed the two buildings. Relief valves are also known as exits. Still, unless you arrive via tour boat on the Potomac, there is no way to entirely avoid the new 21st-century spaces -- with air conditioning and electric lighting and all the other ambiance killers -- should you be contrarian enough to want to visit the site on your own terms.

People who design and make museums never really conceive of the possibility that "the experience" might be optional. The experience, an obvious improvement on a mere visit, is undeniably a Good Thing, value-added that no visitor could conceivably want to avoid. Not wanting the experience is as unfathomable as telling a cruise director you don't want to have fun.

Ironically, the most pleasing architectural feature of the new buildings are the windows, which suggest a freedom to explore that the buildings implicitly deny (at least while you're in them). But even the windows, with their glimpses through glass onto newly planted landscapes, are part of the framing and mediation of "the experience."

Otherwise, the shape and size of the buildings are felt only as you walk through them, and there are few views inside that give you a sense of interior perspective. The movie theaters, in the orientation center, are fronted by a wall with side doors that open automatically to let you enter. Another set of doors opens when the film is over, letting you pass out into grounds of the mansion. People are channeled with the same linear certainty as cars in a car wash. The goal of the visit, Mount Vernon, becomes a surreal glimpse of the real, framed by dizzying bits of entertainment.

This isn't exactly the architectural aesthetic you might expect from a historical shrine to the father of the nation's freedom. But the Mount Vernon folks are upfront about the necessity of these portals. Some of the public, apparently, doesn't know a thing about George Washington.

"Some people think Washington fought in the Civil War," says Emily Coleman Dibella, a public affairs specialist for Mount Vernon. "We want to maximize their time here."

You can sympathize with their frustration. If you don't even know the wars he fought in (Washington also served the British in the French and Indian War), what could you possibly glean by wandering through his home? The new buildings at Mount Vernon were built to remedy ignorance, but as their subterranean placement and disorienting interiors demonstrate, this is all about educating people surreptitiously, painlessly, without anyone quite noticing.

Given the importance that men such as Washington placed on education and civic engagement, this effort to educate literally "underground" seems at odds with the Enlightenment order and balance one sees reflected in the mansion itself. Families with kids in tow, who have paid substantial money for a visit, will undoubtedly be pleased with the comforts and distractions of these new additions.

But it's curious, and a little sad, the degree to which historic sites, in their effort to educate, don't particularly reward the efforts of knowledgeable visitors -- who are corralled through the same spaces, hectored by the same tour guides and subjected to the same Disney features as every other visitor. The one experience that is very difficult to have at Mount Vernon (and, to be fair, at most popular historic attractions) is a simple, unmediated, uninterpreted, un-air-conditioned meander through the Great Man's home.

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