An Athenæum of Philadelphia Symposium
December 4 - 5, 1998

Forever the Same, Forever Changing:
The Dilemma Facing Historic Houses

James C. Rees
Resident Director, Mount Vernon


When the current issue of Museum News landed on my desk five weeks ago, I experienced very mixed reactions to its bold and colorful cover.  According to the editor, the photograph was an explosion of lava and seaweed from a volcanic eruption in Hawaii. The headline declared, “More museums, more visitors? The Boom – and What to Do About It.” [1]  At that time, I had completed about 90 percent of this presentation, and frankly, my theme was by no means the boom taking place in the museum field, but rather the tumultuous and challenging environment I believe we face today and will continue to face tomorrow.  So I read the cover story with great interest.  The authors correctly point out that tourism is up dramatically across the nation, growing by some 89 percent between 1989 and 1997. [2]  They imply that museums are full and active participants in this expansion, and that many of our facilities have become overcrowded with people.   As a result, expansions to facilities will take place in record numbers between now and the close of the century.

But toward the end of the article, the authors finally add an important caveat.  They correctly point out that history museums and living history sites have faced stagnant attendance in recent years.  While visitors may be flocking to art museums, children’s museums, science museums, zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens, history museums are near the very bottom of the list.  Even though the number of historic museums and sites is far greater in most parts of the nation, art museums are attracting three people for every one that opts for history.[3]

So the simple fact is that many history-related institutions are struggling to stay even during a period when most other museums are experiencing record-breaking crowds.  This suggests that when the economy starts to cool and the bloom on the tourism rose begins to fade, some history museums may face crisis situations.

So why are history museums falling behind in the quest to captivate more visitors?  Is it a sign of the times, in the sense that our nation and the world are changing, and that no matter what we do, history is becoming a less popular and relevant topic?  Or should we cast the blame not on the outside world but on ourselves?  As Rick Beard, executive director of the Atlanta Historical Society told Museum News, “The perception remains that history is dull and boring, at least as it is portrayed in history museums.” [4]

It is true, without a doubt, that several outside influences are having a negative impact on our museums.  I feel strongly that the most important aspect affecting the future of our museums is the dismal position of history in most classrooms today.  For years, history has been short-shrifted in the classroom, and at long last educators themselves are admitting this is a problem.  In a survey conducted by the United States Department of Education, only one of ten students graduating from high school can be considered proficient in American history. [5]

In a survey of fourth graders, seven of ten students believed that Illinois, California or Texas were among the 13 original colonies.

Only seven percent of fourth graders could identify “an important event” that took place here, in Philadelphia, in 1776, and only six of ten children knew why the Pilgrims came to America.

A more recent survey conducted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation revealed that half of America’s children don’t know the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and a third of these children believed that the Redcoats were soldiers who fought in the Civil War or in World War I.  Two-thirds of those surveyed thought that the words “give me liberty or give me death” were uttered by Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Paul Revere. [6]

This tremendous decline in knowledge about American history can be experienced almost daily at Mount Vernon. A few months ago, one of Mount Vernon’s guides was asked by a well-spoken adult visitor, “where is the mountain.”  It turns out she was expecting to see George Washington, as well as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, peering out from Mount Rushmore, in Virginia, on the banks of the Potomac.

We should not be surprised by this dramatic decline in knowledge. The fourth grade history textbook used in the public school system in Richmond in the early sixties included ten times more coverage of Washington than the textbook used in that very same classroom today.

Of course, those of us who focus on 18th and 19th century history must face the fact that a great deal has happened over the last 100 years, so teachers are forced to cover a far greater span of historical events than they were when I was a child.  But I firmly believe that quantity is not the only problem – the quality of history education has also declined.  It may be true that the history curriculum used in the fifties and sixties was too burdened by countless facts and figures.  But today, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.  The teaching of a more balanced history of different cultures and societies is, of course, a move in a positive direction.  But the pressure to depict all history in the most politically-correct terms has resulted in revisionist textbooks which bend over backwards to tear down traditional heroes and to stifle American patriotism.

As Harvard professor Peter H. Gibbon points out, the World’s Columbus Exposition in Chicago in 1893, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage, was a remarkable, uplifting extravaganza. [7]  Life-size replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria floated across a man-made lagoon.  Visitors could stroll through a full-scale model of the monastery where Columbus resided before he petitioned Queen Isabella for the funding he needed for his voyage.  The exhibit included no less than 71 portraits of Columbus.  Amazingly, one out of three Americans attended the Chicago Exposition.

The Columbus celebration continued across the nation with countless parades, dedications and sermons.  President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day a national holiday, and Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, which became an instant tradition in American classrooms.

Now flash forward almost 100 years, and recall the controversy that surrounded the utter failure of the Columbus 500-year celebration.  Parades were organized, protested and cancelled.  People rightfully pointed out the dark side of Columbus – that he supported the institution of slavery, that he initiated a race of settlers who destroyed Native American culture, that he lusted for gold.  These accusations are true and they should be pointed out.  But it is a sad commentary on our nation, and our feelings about history, that so few historians, educators, public officials and parents felt obligated to point out the importance of Columbus’ vision, the utter courage it took to sail off into the unknown, and the undeniable fact that his voyage transformed the world. [8] In 1893, we spent the year celebrating our leaders, sharing a sense of deep rooted patriotism, looking forward to a new century of continued progress.  A century later, we spent the year apologizing, and as a result, the so-called celebration never got off the ground.

This isn’t to say that the 19th-century approach of looking at American history through rose-colored glasses should be deemed appropriate or successful.  Truth and authenticity are the touchstones of our field.  Yet there must be a way to educate our children about the complexity of history, and the different viewpoints of different people, without extinguishing the sense of idealism, the feeling of a shared patriotism, that was such an important factor in the lives of everyday Americans just a few decades ago.

I believe that today’s negative approach to American history, as promoted by textbooks and in the media, has had a dramatic effect on attendance at history-related museums.   The sense of enthusiasm for history that resulted in the gargantuan success of the Chicago Exposition in 1893 simply isn’t there.  That an attraction or exhibit related to history would ever have the appeal to mass audiences of the Olympics, or the World Series, or the Super Bowl, is now a dream – but not that long ago, it was a reality.  In today’s world, the term hero is virtually never applied to a general or a politician (unless he decides to return to outer space) and yet the term is used almost indiscriminately in the world of sports. None of this bodes well for our institutions, because most of us assume that Americans are inherently interested in their past, and that they arrive at our doors with a basic knowledge of history and a positive attitude.  It turns out that none of these assumptions is necessarily true.

Now after hearing about the dismal state of history in American classrooms, a director of a history-related site would have good reason to feel like a victim.  But it is my opinion that history museums and sites must share the blame for our nation’s declining interest in history.  If our attendance is stagnant, and visitors are flocking to see art and to experience science instead of coming to our institutions, we must ask ourselves why.

At Mount Vernon, when we were beginning the process of planning a new orientation center and education center,  my board suggested that I visit other similar sites to garner the best ideas in the business.  Over a period of 18 months, I visited more than 200 attractions of all kinds, in five different countries.  This proved to be an eye-opening adventure, and, for the most part, a disturbing one in terms of the future of historic sites.  As I watched visitors react to different exhibits and experiences, it became clear that most art museums, science centers, aquariums and zoos are far ahead of historic sites in terms of living up to the high expectations of visitors.  Although I visited a number of history-related sites that earned high marks in terms of design and creativity – including the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, the First Regiment Museum just outside Chicago, and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to name just a few – I discovered many more that missed the mark.  Some were old-fashioned historic houses or National Park Service sites that  suffered from years of under-funding and neglect.  In fact, I found many of these places to be dusty but charming, primarily because dedicated staff members and volunteers took the time to make every visitor’s experience an intimate and memorable one.  I fear these small but special places will have a difficult time surviving in the years ahead, but they deserve to survive, because these one-on-one exposures to history can be remarkable, reaffirming experiences.

Frankly, the historic sites that proved most disappointing during my travels were those which have the ability to attract the largest audiences, those which have the financial resources to try new and creative approaches to age-old subjects.  Over the past decade there has been a great deal of money spent on exhibits and programs that have failed to strike a chord with the public.  And even more disappointing is the attitude among too many of those who work in historic sites – they simply don’t care whether their messages are reaching people.  Over and over again, I met with directors, curators and educators in history museums  who glossed over declining attendance figures, often in spite of huge budget outlays.  Usually, their response was something along the lines of  “well we focus on quality, not quantity.”  Of course, it is virtually impossible to argue with this statement, but I always wondered why any good museum, which truly believed in its mission, would ever be satisfied with either quality or quantity? we should not be satisfied until we have both.

Now, different historic structures, of course, can properly handle different numbers of people, so at some point, a site reaches its appropriate saturation.  But at the same time, the vast majority of sites are nowhere near this point.  During my travels, I viewed dozens of orientation films, and it was unusual to see half the seats of an auditorium filled with people.  At three sites, I watched films all by myself.  Was the quality of my experience enhanced because I was surrounded by empty seats?  I didn't feel special, I simply felt lonely.

Now I know what most of you are thinking? that’s easy for him to say? after all, Mount Vernon is always crowded with people.  Everyone knows George Washington, and his home is in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.  You are correct – at Mount Vernon, we do indeed think of ourselves as fortunate.  But the truth be told, between the years of 1963 and 1983, Mount Vernon provided a good example of a major historic site that was failing to prepare for the future.  Since 1985, we have made some concerted, and I like to think, creative efforts to move in new and more appropriate directions, but even then, we have failed almost as much as we have succeeded.

As most of you know, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association ranks as the oldest national preservation organization in America, as well as the first national women’s organization.  The Association was founded in 1853 by Miss Ann Pamela Cunningham from South Carolina, who declared that if the men of America would not come to the rescue of George Washington’s home, the women most certainly would.  What she was referring to was the fact that the Washington family, suffering from the collapse of the plantation system and the expense of providing hospitality to countless visitors to Washington’s home, had attempted to sell Washington’s estate, first to the Federal Government and then to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  With the Civil War rapidly approaching, and Mount Vernon on the borderline between North and South, it is understandable why neither Congress nor Virginia’s governor would choose to spend $200,000 on a dilapidated house, despite the prestige of its owner.  So Miss Cunningham selected prominent women from both northern and southern states to serve on the first Mount Vernon board, and over a period of five years, raised the $200,000 needed to purchase Washington’s home.

Although the Association has continued to do a first-class job of restoring and protecting the historic structures, grounds and collections, we have sometimes been so steeped in tradition, so inclined to look almost exclusively at the past rather than the future, that we have lost touch with the needs of our visitors.  When I reported to work at Mount Vernon in 1983, the staff was still referring to their place of work as a shrine.

Just 30 years ago, when visitors toured the Mount Vernon Mansion, we made absolutely no effort to interpret what people were seeing.  There were no tour guides or docents – instead, uniformed security officers were posted throughout the home.  And although we were wise enough not to arm them with guns, their stares often had that “shoot to kill” feeling that instead of making people feel closer to George Washington, made them feel like we were sorry they came.

Even just fifteen years ago, Mount Vernon would not have been described as a terribly inviting environment.  By this time, we were posting highly-trained professional guides throughout the Mansion tour, but in terms of education, that was the beginning and the end of our program.  When we finally started conducting visitor surveys, we were shocked by the results.  Very few people complained about our long lines or our lack of air-conditioning.  Instead, what they mentioned, time and time again, was that they didn’t learn much about George Washington.  So even though we could take great pride in the fact that our gardens and grounds were beautiful and our staff was friendly, we weren’t seeing the forest for the trees – when it gets down to it, our job is to teach people about George Washington, and we were failing miserably.

Unfortunately, our attendance reflected our failure to keep pace with the times.  In 1963, we welcomed an unprecedented 1.35 million people, and throughout this decade, we were among the top five attractions in the Washington area.  By the early 1990s, our attendance had fallen to 940,000 – a decline of some 30 percent – and we had fallen to number 15 in the poll of Washington area sites.  Because Mount Vernon does not accept government funds of any kind, and we depend so heavily on gate receipts, this shrinkage in visitation had a devastating effect on our budget, which proved, in some ways, to be a fortuitous circumstance.  Worried about the future, we started to do regular visitor surveys, we began a long-range planning program, and for the first time, we started talking to experts outside of our gates.  We took these steps as a board and staff working together, and as you might expect, there have been some bumpy roads along the way.  Tradition is and always will be a part of the Mount Vernon story, and we have struggled to determine how we can facilitate change without sacrificing our most important traditions.

In the late eighties, our self-study process revealed some very clear weaknesses in the Mount Vernon experience:

First, unless we wanted to reduce significantly the number of visitors we were educating, we recognized that the Mansion tour would always be shorter and less fulfilling than we would prefer.  During the busiest months, the average visitor tours the home in less than 20 minutes, seeing some 14 rooms, hundreds of pieces of furniture, china, silver, portraits and 18th-century ephemera.  We knew we could improve the quality of the tour to a degree, but time limitations would always present a severe handicap.

Still, we recognized that the 50 acres of outbuildings, gardens and grounds open to visitors were being tremendously under-utilized, and it was here that we could most effectively expand the educational experience.

We also realized that Mount Vernon had failed to take advantage of technology.  We were so inclined to feel that machines of any kind could not be integrated into a period environment that we dismissed them entirely –  a  major mistake on our part.

We also surveyed Washington’s estate and discovered that virtually every visitor experience was a passive one.  We invited people to look but not touch, to listen but not talk.  Today people expect to be challenged, to be offered a chance to actively experience a place and a time.

And finally, and this took several years to accomplish, we began to look at marketing as something other than a distasteful word.  In developing new programs, we started to ask not just what our historians and curators wanted to teach, but what our visitors wanted to learn.  We hired marketing and media relations professionals, not from the museum field but from the private sector, and we began to feel comfortable when they referred to “market shares” and “corporate partners.”  We’ve learned that sometimes no matter how good the steak might be, as our marketing people say, you’ve got to sell the sizzle.

Very quickly, I will review the projects and programs we have implemented at Mount Vernon over the past six to eight years, with the hope that you’ll make your own judgment about their effectiveness.

First, we decided to place a much greater emphasis on an aspect of Washington’s life that receives very little attention – his role as perhaps the most innovative farmer in the 18th century.  With the help of the Kellogg Foundation, we transformed what Washington called “hell hole,” a mosquito-filled swamp, into a four-acre living history experience called "George Washington: Pioneer Farmer."  Here we show Washington’s special seven-year crop rotation and his favorite fertilizers.   We encourage children to crack corn in a pestle, to taste Washington’s favorite breakfast food – hoecakes – cooked over an open fire, to thresh grain with a flailing stick, to plow fields, and to take wagon rides.

The centerpiece is a near-perfect replica of Washington’s 16-sided treading barn, his own invention, which allowed wheat to be treaded inside for the very first time.  We actually invite visitors into the center of the barn, while horses trot around them on top of the freshly-cut wheat.  Their hooves separate the grain from the chaff, and the small kernels fall between spaces in the floorboards to the floor below, while hopefully, the chaff and waste products remain on the floor above.  Not only is the treading experience a true happening (our horses tend to misbehave quite often, so no two treadings are exactly alike), but it offers what we feel is a clear and important educational message: Washington was inventive and creative – two qualities our focus groups seldom associate with “The Father of Our Country.”

We’ve also restored Washington’s fruit garden and nursery, which includes an audio narration.  We recently installed a new Forest Trail, which leads to the site of Washington’s cobble quarry, and the location where archaeologists discovered the remains of a Native American campsite.  Along the way you learn about the plants and animals which have disappeared from these forests since Washington died, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the quail or wild turkeys we’ve re-introduced to the estate.

There are now two boats which provide regular transportation to Mount Vernon.  But this year, for the first time, an hour-long river excursion for those who arrive by land was also provided.  We now offer an audio tour of the outbuildings, as well as three specialty tours on Washington’s landscape and gardens, slave life at Mount Vernon, and Mount Vernon archaeology.  We offer families with children a complimentary Treasure Map, and there are historic trails which challenge scouts of all ages.  During our slower months of the year, we offer a special crafts program for school children called Colonial Days at Mount Vernon, and from Memorial Day to Labor Day, families crowd our Hands-on History Tent, where children can reconstruct archaeological artifacts, try on colonial clothing, and harness a perfectly polite fiberglass mule.

Our population of period-style animals has quadrupled over the past decade, to include Hogg Island sheep, Ossabaw Island hogs, several breeds of horses, Red Devon cattle and oxen, very free-range guinea hens, and of course, the mule, which George Washington introduced to American farming.  These animals have brought a tremendous amount of personality to the estate – the sights, the sounds, even the smells of the period.  They’re also unpredictable, and hardly a month goes by that we don’t have a child crying because a horse nibbled at his toes when the child climbed the fence to get a better look, or three turkeys missing in action because of the growing fox population, or deer ravaging the new shoots on our struggling fruit trees.

To enhance visitation and increase our popularity with young adults, we’ve instituted a series of special events, including the Mount Vernon Wine Festival in May, the Mount Vernon Crafts Fair in September, Harvest Weekend at the Pioneer Farmer site in October, Bastille Day in July, Gardening Days in April, Breakfast with George Washington in February, and a full-fledged Holidays program, both day and  night, in December.  Each of these events includes a strong dose of history, not just fun and games.  For instance, at the Wine Festival, you’ll see George Washington and Thomas Jefferson discussing the virtues of growing Virginia wines, and there is a special guided tour of Washington’s basement, which originally included storage areas for wine and other goods.  Our Crafts Fair is strictly juried, and every entrant must actively demonstrate his or her craft for the enjoyment and education of visitors.  We’ve also created a strong partnership with a local group called Black Women United for Action, which each September co-hosts a moving tribute to the Mount Vernon slaves, and helps us to organize a series of month-long activities during Black History Month in February.

The truth be told, we’ve had our share of less-than-successful ventures.  For several years, for instance, we tried to host a weekend marathon of fife and drum corps from across the country, but we discovered too late that a little fife and drum music goes an awfully long way.  We also hosted a weekend called Dairy Days for several years, with local farmers supplying their award-winning cows.  We thought it would be fascinating to show just how far cows have come over the past two centuries, but apparently visitors were not as excited as we were about increasing a cow's milk production by some tenfold.

We insist that all of our special events relate to the period and include a strong educational element, so we have refused to consider a variety of other events, like antique car shows and boat shows.

We have also gone to great lengths to measure the success of these events, in terms of both quality and quantity.  Most have increased visitation by anywhere from 10 to 60 percent.  We usually make a profit even after all expenses are covered, and after eight years of stagnant visitation, we were again over the million mark in 1997 and 1998.  Our largest increases have been in the student category, reflecting the success of an aggressive outreach program to classrooms.

The quality of the experience also seems to be on the increase. Visitors are learning more because they are staying longer.  The average stay in 1993 was 89 minutes, and last year we estimated that stay to be about 129 minutes.  On the positive side, we’ve discovered that the longer a visitor stays, the more likely he is to eat at our restaurants or stop by our shops.   In 1998, we expect to approach the $3 million mark in food sales, and the $5 million mark in product sales.  About $1.6 million drops to the bottom line, an important factor in the ongoing preservation of the estate.

Over the past five years, we have also expanded quite dramatically our outreach efforts.  The George Washington Biography Lesson will be distributed in 1998 to some 950,000 fifth grade students in ten states and in the District of Columbia, through the generosity of private corporations, foundations and individuals.  This lesson includes not only the standard printed materials you might expect, but also an interactive Dig into George CD-ROM, a package of wheat seeds to enable students to duplicate Washington’s botanical experiments, a set of George Washington trading cards, and what we call scratch and learn quiz cards.  Because of these creative elements, the usage of our kits has been incredibly high – in some states more than 90 percent of the teachers who receive the kit make it a part of their history curriculum.

Still, we have come to recognize that re-invigorating the interest of the American people in George Washington is a gargantuan task – one that we certainly cannot begin to accomplish alone.   So three years ago, we began developing a strategy for 1999, the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s death, which called for a series of important partnerships with organizations across the nation.

Working together, our goal for the George Washington Bicentennial is a simple one . . . we want to communicate to people across the entire country the character and leadership of this great man.

First, allow me to describe a few things we’re doing on the Mount Vernon estate for the one-point-one million people we expect to welcome in 1999.  We are nearing completion of a controversial project that many experts believed we’d never attempt – the installation of air conditioning.  So that we disturb as little original fabric as possible in the Mansion, we are using new technology to deliver the cool air through the existing closets and between roof rafters. The importance of this project is far-reaching, because providing superb climate control and security is essential if we hope to convince other institutions and individuals to make important loans of George Washington pieces.  We are bringing no less than 100 artifacts – china, silver, furniture and paintings – back home for this anniversary year.   We’ve also restored the north dependency building, the small structure attached to the Mansion by a colonnade, and we’ve refurbished both the old and new tombs of Washington.  We are gutting our current museum to mount a new exhibit on Washington’s presidency, and we hope to add some unexpected costumed characters to the Mount Vernon experience, including James Madison and Thomas Paine.

With the help of the Garden Club of Virginia, we are restoring the plantings surrounding the Bowling Green – one of Washington’s most important contributions to the field of landscape design.  We have enlisted an English firm, Sarner International, to create a piece of “mood theater” in the replica of Washington’s greenhouse.  In a totally darkened room, small groups of 30 people will be present during the emotional moments surrounding the death of Washington.  Using special lighting and sound effects, film and stage illusions, Sarner will attempt to relate the reactions of Washington’s loved ones, as well as the nation at large.

Throughout the bicentennial year, Mount Vernon will conduct special tours that follow in the footsteps of those who attended Washington’s funeral, and along the way, you’ll be able to peer into the original Washington tomb, as well as participate in a wreathlaying at the new tomb.  We’ve planned a special event to celebrate Washington’s last birthday in 1799, when his granddaughter Nelly Custis was married here at Mount Vernon.  In October, we hope to partner with the U.S. Army and more than 500 colonial re-enactors to stage a military encampment in honor of Washington’s greatest victory at Yorktown.  Masons from all 50 states will congregate on the east lawn in June, and we expect more than a thousand people to attend a Society of the Cincinnati convocation in September.  And the year will come to a close with an authentic re-creation of Washington’s funeral, complete with a cast of more than a hundred costumed characters.

For the first time since 1976, Mount Vernon will remain open to the general public in the evenings, every Friday and Saturday night from April through August, when we will feature a special program entitled An American Celebration in Music.

Throughout 1999, we hope these programs will strike a special chord with Americans.  We want people who may have visited Mount Vernon once, or several times, to say to themselves, this is a rare opportunity to see Mount Vernon in a different light.  The rooms in the Mansion will be enlivened, the Museum exhibits are new, and around almost every corner, you’ll meet an historic character, or be able to take a special tour, or to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Those who think of the Mount Vernon experience as a dusty house tour, who say they’ve been there and done that, will look at a return visit as a true adventure.

In our 140 year history, the Association has never mounted a traveling exhibition.  In 1999, we hope to mount three.  The most important will be Treasures of Mount Vernon, which will include a host of objects that have never left the Mount Vernon estate, including priceless books, portraits and the most famous set of dentures in America.  This million-dollar exhibit opened at the New-York Historical Society on November 20, and for the next 16 months, these treasures will travel to prominent museums in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Richmond.

The second exhibit investigates a side of Washington’s character which is always underrated – his talents as an architect and landscape designer.  In cooperation with the American Institute of Architects Foundation, we’ll investigate Washington’s keen eye for design, and how the famous white columns, as well as the simple and straightforward cupola have been used by countless 19th and 20th-century architects in residences, bank buildings, Howard Johnson hotels, and even gas stations.

Our third exhibition tells the life story of Washington through handsome 19th-century prints.  If all goes well, these three exhibits could reach more than a half-million people in more than a dozen cities.

Congress has already approved the minting of a commemorative George Washington coin, as well as a resolution declaring December 14, 1999, a national day of commemoration for George Washington.  To date, five state legislatures have passed bills that require flags to be flown at half mast and bells to toll in memory of Washington, and we hope that each and every state will follow their leads.  Mount Vernon is featured on the cover of Virginia’s highway map, and Virginians will be able to order a special George Washington license plate.

In addition, about a dozen Washington-related sites in Virginia are joining together to create special interest tours that examine aspects of Washington's life and accomplishments in the Old Dominion.

Later this month, we will introduce the first definitive "coffee table book" on Mount Vernon ever published.  It’s being edited by Wendell Garrett and will feature all new photographs by Robert Lautman.  A second major book, published by Houghton-Mifflin, will focus exclusively on Washington’s gardens and grounds.  We have co-sponsored a new American History textbook with The Society of the Cincinnati; we have reprinted one of the all-time great biographies of Washington, Man and Monument, by Marcus Cunliffe; and Billy Graham has written an introduction to a new book featuring the greatest eulogy to Washington ever written.  Smaller, inexpensive books are being written on Washington’s military and presidential careers.  All totaled, no less than nine books are scheduled to be released in 1999.

But our most promising efforts revolve around special partnerships, and their ultimate success depends upon the enthusiastic participation of organizations that are much larger than Mount Vernon.

Working with the Department of the Army, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Masons, Mount Vernon will offer a low-cost celebration kit to at least 40,000 communities and organizations across America.

The Kit provides more than a dozen ways to celebrate Washington in 1999, including the opportunity to purchase a flag flown at Mount Vernon for a flag-raising event; or plant a tree from a descendant of one of Washington's trees; or plan a picnic or dinner based on a meal enjoyed by the Washingtons; or perform a "George Washington March" specially commissioned for 1999; or stage a special school skit.  Communities and schools named after George Washington – and our research shows there exist several hundred -- will be specially targeted.

Mount Vernon will also join with the National Tree Trust to distribute seeds from original trees planted by Washington to some 150,000 students in more than ten states.

In partnership with the National Capital Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Mount Vernon will create a new George Washington Activity Badge, and we’re planning a campover on the estate for at least 1,000 scouts.

The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress has agreed to co-host a special expanded version of our annual George Washington Symposium in November 1999, which, just like this conference, is endowed by the Barra Foundation, and we hope to co-sponsor a lecture series in the nation’s capital with the Supreme Court Historical Society.

With the help of the Organization of American Historians, Mount Vernon has conducted a poll of historians in an effort to compile a list of the ten greatest books on Washington.  The winners are being made available to libraries and book retailers.

This is by no means a complete list of the attention Washington will be receiving in 1999. George Washington recently appeared with his military troops in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, for instance, and we think the new George Washington march will be previewed on national television during one of the bowl games this January.  In February alone, there'll be a program of George Washington music at the Kennedy Center; an Evensong celebrating Washington's character at historic Christ Church, which will be carried by radio stations across the nation; and a concert of an original composition on Washington, inspired by the words of a slave, performed by the marine Corps Band at Constitution Hall.  But to be frank, we also recognize that all of our goals will not be reached, that some of these projects, no matter how worthy, will fall by the wayside.

But if we can involve each and every member of the DAR – that’s more than 200,000 women – and the Masons – that’s a million men, and The Society of the Cincinnati, the Colonial Dames, and perhaps the Veterans of Foreign Wars, just think of how many people could be touched by George Washington in this year of celebration.

Geographically, we may be starting at Mount Vernon, but with our traveling shows and partnerships we will take George Washington on the road to these cities . . .

We already know of other first-rate museums that plan to mount their own Washington exhibits in these cities . . .

We estimate that classrooms in these areas will receive seeds from Washington’s trees . . .

And that over 500 schools, counties and towns named for George Washington will use our commemoration kits to plan their own special programs . . .

And we hope to convince several thousand more communities to celebrate the bicentennial and, through our two Internet sites, our new CD-ROM, and our George Washington classroom kits, as well as a nationwide media program, we hope to reach every nook and cranny of America.

And if all goes well, by the year 2000, a large percentage of Americans may feel a little differently about George Washington.  Participants in focus groups will no longer nod their heads in agreement when it is suggested that Washington was "great but boring."

It is our challenge, and yes, our responsibility, to present Washington as the vital, creative, dynamic individual who stepped forward to lead our nation, not once but twice, in its time of need.  The Washington who, as a young man, was so enthusiastic about his military career that he said he "loved the sound of whistling bullets," the same war-weary peacemaker who 30 years later placed a symbolic dove of peace on the Mansion cupola.  The Washington who inherited slaves when he was 11 years old, used them throughout most of his life to become a profitable business leader, then finally recognized the hypocrisy of the institution and freed his slaves in his will.  These are not necessarily easy or comfortable stories to tell, but tell them we must – because what makes history remarkable are the struggles, the defiance, the courage, the sacrifice – the knowledge that in a week or a day or even a few seconds, the actions of a single man or woman can change the world forever.

At Mount Vernon, we have just begun to scratch the surface of Washington's complex personality, and we've tried only a small percentage of the teaching techniques and new technologies that exist in our field.  And perhaps the only part of our past which I hope we have left behind is our complacency – the feeling that George Washington is indestructible and that his home will, now and forever, attract millions of people, regardless of what we do.  As times change, and people change, we must change the ways we communicate history, and accept the fact that if Americans do not feel the people and places of the past are fascinating, in all likelihood it is not their fault – it is ours.

References: (click the footnote number to return to the text)

[1]Museum News, John Strand, editor and publisher.  November/December 1998

[2] Travel Industry Association, Washington, D.C.

[3] Ibid.

[4] "The Boom - and What to Do About It," Jane Lusaka and John Strand, Museum News, November/December 1998.

[5] National Assessment of Educational Programs, United States Department of Education, 1995

[6] Opinion Research Corporation survey of 1004 adults and 502 children, conducted in spring 1998

[7] Peter H. Gibbon, "Apologize for Columbus?" The Washington Post, October 12, 1998

[8] Ibid.

 

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