Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Curator on Vacation - George Washington's House

By: Erin Richardson, Curator
A few weeks ago, I travelled to Virginia for a wedding at George Washington's Mount Vernon.  Afterwards, we visited the site for a tour and a walk around the grounds.

Here's my husband and I as tourists:

This trip marked my second visit to George's house.  You may recall from my previous post, that George and I are buddies (or at least I thought so in grade school). 
The first time I visited George's house, I was in high school on a family trip looking at colleges. I don't remember the site  at all.  My only recollections are of the aftermath of the trip.  My Mom bought some ivy cut from Mount Vernon gardens that she planted when we got home -- it grew all the way up the chimney. The second memory involves my Dad winning a guessing contest. There was a giant jar of timothy seeds in the education center--he submitted a guess as to the number of seeds and won!  The prize was an American flag that had spent some time flying over Mount Vernon (a new flag - not an old one). 
Today, I was struck by a number of things. Although I have always loved museums, I don't enjoy them in the same way that I did before I became a curator. Sure, I listen to tours and look at furniture, try out activities, ask questions,  but I am always watching other visitors' experiences and taking in how the site is managed. And so this visit was much different than the first one.
First, I was struck by the overall spiritual nature of the site. Although I am sure there were thousands of other visitors on site with us, it was very quiet and peaceful. I was awed by the reverence with which visitors treated the site -- like hallowed ground.

Here's a view of the grounds while we were waiting for our house tour:

Second, I was reminded of the age of the site as a museum.  Mount Vernon is one of the oldest historic house museums in the United States. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association began protecting and restoring the home and site in 1834 and they still operate it today.

I was impressed that the current restoration of the site has not eliminated all of the past layers of interpretation.  In the area reserved for memorializing the slaves that once worked the plantation, the new memorial maker is set aside from the old memorial marker.

Here's the new marker:

Here's the old maker from 1929 referring to "colored servants." It does not mention slaves at all:

This intrigues me because most museums jump at the chance to modernize their interpretation and erase misguided, misinformed, or racist material from their past information of a site's history. I think it is important to show what we've learned, rather than to push old ways of thinking under the rug. Kudos to Mount Vernon Ladies' Association!

On a completely different note I found myself constantly thinking about how their visitation relates to site maintenance.  The site is open 365 days per year and they average 1 million visitors annually.  That means there are people are in the historic house every day, a lot of them, all at the same time!  This year at The Farmers' Museum, I've been working at creating a plan that will help us to keep our buildings clean. One of the big problems we encounter is dust and grit that comes into our buildings on visitors' feet.  This problem is amplified at Mount Vernon. The house is filled with people all day long and all of the paths on the site are surfaced with dusty pea gravel. Although I was listening to our docents, I was also watching visitors, their feet, and noticing the cleanliness (or dustiness) of different parts of the historic interior. And I thought we had problems with dust! If we have dust bunnies - they have dust mastodons!

I must say, none of my "take-aways" from this trip are directly about George Washington's home or about American history. However, I'm sure that other visitors have completely different reactions to the site which are also unrelated to George or American history. Whatever my reaction (on this trip, or the first one), the fact that I'm still thinking about my visit weeks later is testimony to the power of museums in my life. I hope that other visitors find that same power. It is why I love my job.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So interesting to see your perspective. It is always amazing to think about what goes on to maintain the beautiful buildings we get to enjoy. - Anne R ;)

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