Just two more days. Two more days of this seminar and two more days of grad school! This antepenultimate day was celebrated with a field trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. I was excited to visit Mount Vernon, but I had no idea what was in store…
Over the past few years, Mount Vernon has undergone a major ideological shift and has developed a new storytelling approach. This transformation began with its interpretation staff and continued with the new exhibit Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The old story focused solely on the larger-than-life George Washington. The new story incorporates the story of the enslaved people who lived on Mount Vernon — a story that was as much a part of George Washington’s life as being a General and the Revolutionary War were.
In this new storytelling approach there was one storytelling element that I found particularly interesting. The typical story of George Washington may show artifacts from his life, such as a luxurious porcelain table setting, and tell you how he used them. The new approach includes the same items, but the narrative of the object is different. Consider a luxury item such as a porcelain sugar container and the sugar it held. Enslaved people can’t be removed from these luxury items when you consider the sugar container was cleaned and served by enslaved people, and the sugar inside of the container was harvested by enslaved people. You can’t fully understand the story of Mount Vernon without including the story of the enslaved people that lived there.
This visit to Mount Vernon and the overview of the new storytelling approach happening today was very apropos. Yesterday, we discussed The Empathetic Museum and had a practice exercise that involved an institution very similar to Mount Vernon. When hearing about the changes made, I felt like I could see Mount Vernon using The Empathetic Museum’s Maturity Model as a tool for this transformation. Having this framework fresh in my mind provided an additional level of understanding.
I do have to say, there was one way Mount Vernon disappointed me. This intentional step to include the stories of enslaved people is really just a step. Mount Vernon has not undergone any sort of evaluation to see if this new approach is effective. For many visitors this narrative might not agree with their preconceived notions. Battling a visitor’s misconceptions is INCREDIBLY difficult. To assume that you are getting through to your visitors is museum hubris.
In case you were wondering, George Washington did not, in fact, ride 14 horses at one time in battle, rather Jonathan Wood, Mount Vernon Character Interpreter, said this jokingly when describing some the difficulties and challenges they face when portraying George Washington as a slave-owning man, not a larger-than-life character. A visitor is more willing to belive a made up story about Grorge Washington’s heroics in battle than accept a narrative that includes George Washington as a person who owned enslaved people.