Mount Vernon

“The only true education is that which prepares the child to be of use to the world.” – Interpreter portraying Martha Washington at Mount Vernon

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Mount Vernon, the historic home of George and Martha Washington, is preserved by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, a private, non-profit organization founded by Ann Pamela Cunningham in 1853.[1] Being owned by a private organization, Mount Vernon is supported by the revenue taken in on site, as well as donations from foundations, corporations and individuals in the public sector. No tax money or governmental funds are used in the upkeep of the site.

The entire Mount Vernon experience is meant to educate. After purchasing tickets visitors are directed to a theatre for an introductory video. From the outset, the delicate balance of fact and folklore is present. The beginning of the video is narrated by Pat Sajak, of Wheel of Fortune fame. As he details the activities and sights to be taken advantage of, Sajak alludes to George Washington’s supposed inability to tell a lie, as well as the infamous cherry tree. While neither of these references is historically accurate, they serve the purpose of drawing the audience in, by playing upon the commonly known stories surrounding the first President. Once the attention is given the interpreters at the sight work to convey a well-rounded image of George Washington and the time in which he lived. As Meghan Rafferty, an Education Associate at the site, puts it, “I think that we try and embrace the myths in a way and educate the public on where they came from. People do love the myths and so we have to acknowledge them, but we use them as a tool to learn and grow from.”[2]

Walking into the main dining room of the mansion, visitors are informed that they are in the room that is thought to be where George Washington stood when he was informed that he had been elected the first President of the United States. However, they are told, while such a fact is believed to be possible there is no hard evidence proving that it is undeniably true. Interpreters bear a great amount of the responsibility for educating those who have come to the site. Mount Vernon employs both costumed and non-costumed interpreters. For the general tour of the mansion, each area of the house has at least one non-costumed interpreter who provides background on the Washingtons usage of the room and the material culture that has been preserved there.

Interpreters discuss life at Mount Vernon with visitors.

Outside of the mansion, costumed interpreters can be found throughout the site. These interpreters can be further broken down into first-person and third-person interpretations. The blacksmith, while dressed in period clothing, discusses his work and life with the audience from a twenty-first century perspective. The interpreter portraying Martha Washington, on the other hand, immerses herself in the role. Each of these groups provides the visitor with unique perspectives on the history, creating a well rounded educational experience.

Adding to its education value, the site does not shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of its history. Mount Vernon acknowledges that the institution of slavery “shaped America’s economy, politics, culture, and fundamental principles.”[3] Slaves are discussed, by name, throughout the mansion. The slave memorial, quarters and grave yard are highlighted by the map issued to visitors upon entering the site. Interpreters make no justifications of slavery, nor do they condemn Washington for being a slave owner. Visitors are left to weigh the information and make their own judgments.

Mount Vernon houses a rich collection of material culture which greatly aids in the mission to educate its audience on

Material culture plays an important role in the educational experience.

George Washington. As visitors stand in the doorway of George and Martha’s bedroom, looking at the bed that the country’s first president died in, there is a sense of reverence that could not be attained through a simple reading of the facts of that day.

Various signs provide education on structures and gardens. Some of these signs speak to George Washington’s desire to conserve the land on which he lived, while others speak to the different applications of the plants. There is also information in this venue detailing facts on the Native American tribes who once lived on the land.

The site further lives up to its education mission with its creation of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which opened in 2006. An interactive experience that chronicles George Washington’s life, the Education Center nicely supplements the work done by the site’s interpreters. The popularity of the center is apparent from the increase in visitation by 100,000 people in the year following its creation.[4] Visitors appreciate the multiple perspectives from which to view Washington’s life and the world he lived in.

The site is open 365 days a year, drawing in a diverse cross section of visitors. In addition to spanning age ranges, they also span ethnicities and nationalities. Having housed one of the most high profile figures of the United States, it is a popular tourist attraction for those who are visiting the capitol. Teacher and students also make up a large portion of the audience, as well as organizations like the Boy and Girl Scouts. Visitors engage with the interpreters, but also with each other. It is not uncommon for audience members, excited by previous knowledge of the subject matter, to be heard sharing facts and stories with each other. From the work done by interpreters, to the physical structure and material culture, to the active participation of visitors, Mount Vernon creates a unique educational experience.

[1] Patricia West, Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), 7.

[2] Meghan Rafferty, interview by Kelly Johnson, electronic interview, November 15, 2010.

[3] Ira Berlin, “Coming to Terms with Slavery in Twenty-First-Century America,” Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: The New Press, 2006), 2.

[4] Meghan Rafferty, interview by Kelly Johnson, electronic interview, November 15, 2010.

Published on December 1, 2010 at 7:29 pm  Comments Off on Mount Vernon  
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