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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.