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Home of the Brave Volume 59 Number 6, November/December 2006
by Colleen Popson

[image] An 1860 oil painting shows Washington at Mount Vernon with his wife, Martha, and two of his step-granddaughters. In the background, one of the 50 slaves owned by the Washingtons serves tea. (Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies Association) [LARGER IMAGE]

The new Mount Vernon will bring visitors as close to standing in the presence of George Washington as anyone has come in 200 years. Through state-of-the-art multimedia and interactive exhibits, two new facilities--the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center--present what they call the "real George Washington": not the empty icon on the dollar bill, but a complex man with strengths, foibles, and a bold vision for a new nation.

Upon entering the Ford Orientation Center's light-filled marble hall, visitors are welcomed by bronze statues of George, Martha, and their grandchildren. They also see a one-twelfth-scale working model of the mansion, with doorknobs that turn, windows that open, and fireplaces that light.

Outside, a rolling pasture dotted with sheep is actually the roof of the new museum and education center. By burying most of the building, the project's architects have preserved the view from the mansion. Decorative arts exhibits show some of the 30,000 objects in the Mount Vernon collection, including the silver spurs Washington lent to a soldier so he could ride from Valley Forge to Boston for supplies, Martha Washington's sewing basket, and one of the general's brass nameplates excavated from a trash heap near the kitchen.

The education center's 16 galleries and theaters paint an even more detailed portrait of Washington's life. The first gallery is a mock laboratory that explains how a team of scientists and artists used paintings, sculpture, firsthand descriptions, clothing measurements, dental records, and computer modeling to create three true-to-life wax figures of Washington at various ages--the surveyor at 19, the Revolutionary War general at 45, and the nation's first president at 53.

The first gallery sets the tone for those to come, each of which uses hands-on exhibits to impart a deeper knowledge of the man, his personal challenges, tough choices, failures, and triumphs.


A copper-alloy button commemorating Washington's 1789 presidential inauguration (Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies Association) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Young Virginian gallery introduces Washington, the surveyor, and lets visitors learn to use surveying chains. Then, we see his defeat at Fort Necessity during the French and Indian War. Another exhibit displays George Washington's dentures as if they were the Hope Diamond, in a gallery entirely devoted to the history of our first president's dental problems.

In the Revolutionary War galleries, visitors are drawn to an infinity mirror where they can feel the advancing lines of the British army and navy just as General Washington would have. In the Elizabeth and David Bruce Smith Theater, visitors are immersed in the battles of Boston, Yorktown, and Trenton: fog rolls around the audience, cannons shake the seats, and snow falls from the ceiling as Washington crosses the Delaware. Wrapping up the lesson on Washington at war, the Citizen Soldier gallery explains how at war's end, Washington voluntarily abdicated what could have been a monopoly of power--like Napoleon's or Caesar's--and returned to life as a private citizen.

In the days after the war Washington indulged his entrepreneurial spirit. His actual whiskey distillery, which archaeologists began excavating in 1999 ("Birthplace of American Booze," September/October 2001), is being reconstructed and will open next spring. Next door to the distillery is a gristmill. Archaeologists discovered the mill's foundation in 1932, and helped to faithfully reconstruct it over the original foundation. The miller gladly turns on the machinery for visitors and explains the eighteenth-century technology as the mill churns out corn and wheat flour.

Even as Mount Vernon reveals the character of George Washington with new depth, the exhibits also reflect how his values shaped the newly formed republic. In The People's President gallery, we see a video showing U.S. senators reciting Washington's "Farewell Address," illustrating how he made a second decision to step away from power to make room for future leaders. In front of a replica of Federal Hall, visitors can place their hands on a Bible, recite the oath of office, and hear the roar of the crowd on inauguration day--a reminder that anyone born in the U.S. has a chance to become president.

Colleen Popson is ARCHAEOLOGY's Washington D.C. correspondent.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America