Monday, January 17, 2011

What Price History: A Visit to Mount Vernon

LivingSocial, that friend of the cultured and broke, told me one day that it could get me tickets at slightly less than half of Mount Vernon's usual price of $15 for an adult. I had borne something of a grudge against the estate ever since I had taken a brisk bike ride down the superb Mount Vernon Trail and found at the end that I was expected to fork over some cash if I wished to stroll about the grounds. Living in DC has quite spoiled me for pay-museums.

Miniature animatronic house
But now, an opportunity to fork over somewhat less cash while checking off an item on the MusePrint list! I took it. Thus it was that on an unpleasantly cold day I found myself nose to nose with a life-size bronze of our first President. Well, not quite nose to nose. Washington was tall even by modern standards. This was one of the few things I gathered from the orientation center,* which consisted of four photo-op bronzes, a motorized miniature of the Mansion House, and a 20 minute movie billed incessantly as an action oriented epic. It features Washington crossing the Delaware river, killing some French and Indians, falling off a horse, and smooching Martha Custis, not exactly in that order but not in any order that makes much narrative sense. The attempted whiz-bang-FORD rebranding of someone I assume is a complex man of a fascinating period left me dissatisfied; I was relieved even by the cold as we set off up the hill toward the Mansion House itself.

As a plantation, Mount Vernon seemed to be somewhere between a castle and a small town. The outbuildings surrounding the main house included the gardener's house, the salt house, the overseer's house (apparently he oversaw both slave and free labor... wonder how that worked) but we had time for little more before the Mansion House tour began. Having grown up in a house built in 1779, I regarded the uneven floorboards, the four-poster beds, and the game efforts at right angles with a familiar and affectionate eye. There was, however, a considerable difference of style between the New England houses of my youth and Washington's manor - not just in wealth, but in spatial quality. Corners of rooms were cut off much more frequently, curves and pillars figured more prominently in the design.

The place was staffed by assiduous volunteers, mostly women of middle age with bright lipstick and stiff smiles.** Each seemed to know mostly about the room they explained (fair enough). I learned a few things from the house: Washington placed a great emphasis on agriculture and wished his visitors to know it, the family underscored their wealth through the day-glo green dining room, and Martha Washington custom-ordered their bed. Hanging in the front hall was a key to the Bastille, a souvenir from Lafayette- perhaps in fond memory of his revolutionary internship.

The Sixteen-Sided Barn (fifteen sides just aren't enough)
The view of the Potomac from Mount Vernon looked very familiar. Perhaps this is because I've seen it in pictures, but I suspect that it's because it is very nearly the Form of the River View. Walking down the hill brought us to the farm, which works from April to October but which was now inhabited only by a few well-insulated sheep. This was only one of five farms that Washington managed over the original 8000 acres of the plantation.  Washington maintained a steady program of architectural expansion and improvement as well as agricultural experimentation.

Appreciation for the personal and political character of the man who helmed this enterprise was undermined by the uneasy consciousness of the slave labor on which it was created and sustained. The Estate seems to have no notion of how to address this disconnect. The periodic references to some named slaves, and the insertion of "by enslaved workers" into passive constructions in the signage only reinforce the unease. A less begrudging approach might have done better service, even if the goal was to focus all the attention on Washington. As it is, I found myself constantly wondering what he, or the estate, had got to hide. It may be worth noting that he bought teeth off his slaves.

Our visit ended in the museum, a place that seems to have a bit more money than it knows what to do with. In between the obsessive fascination with just how accurately the team of forensics experts had been able to reconstruct Washington's appearance, and the nervously commercial plugs for products in the Mount Vernon store, the museum conveyed a number of interesting and humanizing historical details. I had previously no idea just how far across the world the French and Indian war had ranged. Nor did I know of Washington's involvement in precipitating the conflict, or his bitterness over his failure to obtain a commission in the British army. The transition from identity as British colonist to American fascinates me.

But again, opportunities to learn about Washington and the tenor of his timers were obscured by a hagiography that veered from the uncomfortable to the absurd. The final chamber in the museum was a theater-in-the-round, which was used to play what amounted to a powerpoint showing a montage of positive words. "Will we ever see his like again?" intoned the narrator. "Perhaps, if we remain true to his memory." And exit through the gift shop. Washington plates. Washington spoons. Washington stained glass. Washington on a horse. The once and future Washington! Surely Washington doesn't need to be sold to compel attention.

But it's easy for me to decry commercial obtrusion into my history museum experience. I don't have an estate to run.

*Fun exercise: click that link and see if the references to Ford outnumber those to Washington.
**To be fair, I defy you to smile any other way when the temperature goes below 30.

Place: Mount Vernon
Pros: The best river view on the East Coast.
Cons: Weirdly commercial vibe.
Definitely Check Out: The combination hothouse/slave quarters.
Rating: 5/10 silver spoons.

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