Springfield State Journal Register

December 4, 2006

George's place gets update

Lincoln museum, library influence changes to Washington's site

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Many Americans know George Washington was the nation's first president, but that's about all.

They can't picture the "father of our country" as anything but a white-haired, stern-looking man.

With the use of forensic science and plenty of special effects, a new museum and education center at Washington's stately Mount Vernon home aims to give visitors a more complete image of the man - with a 21st century twist.

The effort to add some contemporary razzle-dazzle to Washington's life is similar to the idea behind the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, which was a model for some of the exhibits at Mount Vernon.

During a film on his Revolutionary War battles, snowflakes fall on the audience as Washington leads his troops across the frozen Delaware River. Seats rumble and lights flash in the theater as cannons fire on-screen.

Previously, visitors to Mount Vernon toured the historic mansion and learned about Washington's family life, but were told nothing about his years as a soldier or as president.

"Our most challenging audience is an eighth-grade boy," said Mount Vernon's executive director, James Rees.

"That middle-school period is really tough. They seem to be more concerned if something is 'cool,' and certainly don't want to show that they're interested in any thing that's not cool. So it's got to be pretty cutting-edge. It's got to be pretty exciting to appeal to that audience, from our experience."

Eighth-grader Donald Dempsey, 13, said the movie hit the mark.

"My favorite part was the cannons and the red lights and the shaking of the chairs," said Dempsey, who was visiting recently with a class group from Fairfax, Va.

The planners of Mount Vernon's new exhibits took some tips from the Abraham Lincoln complex, one of about 200 sites in 15 states and six countries they visited in their research.

After admiring the re-creation of Lincoln's boyhood home, they added some life to one planned exhibit at Mount Vernon. A sick "soldier" lying on a cot in a hut at Valley Forge, Pa., breathes, groans and coughs.

In another exhibit, depicting Washington as a 19-year-old surveyor, they added a mechanized cardinal and squirrel - another idea borrowed from the Lincoln museum.

"I was very impressed that the Lincoln museum let you touch things," Rees said.

As a result, visitors at Mount Vernon can view a reproduction of Martha Custis Washington's wedding dress without a glass barrier.

Both Mount Vernon and the Lincoln museum are in the forefront of a trend to make historical sites more appealing to a generation raised with video games and iPods.

In his research, Rees said he discovered historical sites "were the least creative in how they communicate their messages. Therefore, we learned a lot from other types of places like zoos and aquariums."

But serious history buffs aren't ignored in the new buildings at Mount Vernon. The exhibits include more than 700 objects, including Washington's traveling razor, the family Bible, a list of his slaves and his will with instructions to free them after Martha died.

Supporters raised $112 million in private funds to build two new buildings - an orientation center and the museum and education center - which opened in October.

They were constructed mostly underground so they don't distract from the historic home. Eventually, sheep will graze in the grass that covers the roof of the museum and education center.

Attracting more visitors was not a major goal. Washington's home already draws 1 million visitors a year, making it one of the most popular historic homes in the country. Rather, Rees hopes visitors will stay longer and learn more.

School textbooks today have one-tenth the information they had about Washington 40 years ago, Rees said.

"People in their 30s are definitely suffering from this same lack of teaching about George Washington. I'm sure it's true about Lincoln, too. Everybody knows their faces, but do they really know about their accomplishments?" Rees said.

Lincoln is better known because he had the good fortune of living in an era when photography existed, Rees said. He decided visitors needed to know the real George.

So forensic experts spent two years and more than $1 million to research and create three life-size wax models of Washington, showing visitors what he probably looked like at ages 19, 45 and 57.

"Today, people have a lot of respect for research that is scientifically based," Rees said.

Much of what people were once taught in school about Washington isn't true. He didn't wear a wig. He preferred his own hair.

And those wooden teeth? Washington never had any.

But a pair of his dentures - made with a lead base fitted with cow and human teeth - are available for inspection. In fact, an entire exhibit chronicles the first president's dental care, or lack thereof - from the first tooth he had pulled to the last.

In Washington for a conference, social studies teacher Jack Wilson of St. Louis predicted his eighth-grade students will enjoy the hands-on elements in the exhibits, as well as the movies.

"If you want to keep people interested and not keep it locked away in a museum somewhere where nobody gets to see it and enjoy it, you have to make it entertaining," Wilson said.


Dori Meinert can be reached at 202-737-7686 or dori.meinert @copleydc.com.