NYT praises new $60 million Mt. Vernon exhibits, but says the GW mystery remains





There is a mystery at the heart of Mount Vernon, the estate to which George Washington retired during intervals between accomplishments as a founding father. That mystery might have been less evident before the estate’s owners, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, spent more than $60 million to build two exhibition halls opening Friday that will transform the nature of the pilgrimage made by a million visitors a year to these rolling acres overlooking the Potomac.

Now there is no avoiding that mystery because these buildings — the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center — were partly built to address it: what was Washington like, this most publicly celebrated and privately guarded of the founding fathers, and what is the scope of his accomplishment? In trying to answer those questions George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens must now engage in a delicate balance, combining its old tradition of historical curatorship with new traditions that try to wow visitors with sensations like a surround-sound theater in which cannon thuds can be felt in every seat and real snowflakes fall from the ceiling....

... there really is a mystery about Washington in a way there is not with other founding fathers. The historian Joseph J. Ellis said that Benjamin Franklin was wiser, Alexander Hamilton more brilliant, John Adams better read, Thomas Jefferson more intellectually sophisticated and James Madison more politically astute, yet each thought Washington his “unquestioned superior.” Why? And how, outside the realm of legend, is his career to be understood? As it turns out, the new exhibitions to do not succeed in shedding that kind of light; they simplify too much and, in some respects, make some things even more puzzling. But Mount Vernon has ambitions that reach broadly as well as deeply, and those are more effective. The average visit to Mount Vernon, now two and a half hours long, is expected to expand and incorporate a wider audience, which is just what is sought by many historical museums as they shift emphasis from objects to experiences....

There is a side to Washington that is missing. Why did Gilbert Stuart, who painted one of the most famous portraits, describe him as “fierce,” and why did Abigail Adams, the first lady, call him “very dangerous”? The sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, whose well-known bust of Washington is on prominent display here, followed his subject for two weeks and selected an expression for his face that (Houdon said) showed Washington’s indignation at the prices being charged for a pair of horses. Indignation mixed with ambition, pride and genius is a potent blend, particularly if combined, as they were in Washington, with realism, practicality and moral vision....



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