Mount Vernon has been on my list of museums for a while now, and I’m so glad we were able to go, for the seminar. I didn’t do any previous research on the exhibitions beforehand so I didn’t have any special expectations, but I did expect a Monticello-ish vibe since it was a President’s home; however, Mount Vernon portrayed so much more than just the home where Washington died.
The gardens and grounds were so calming and a striking contrast to the stories told in the Lives Bound Together special exhibition and Christopher Sheels (Jonathan) interpretation. Jonathan’s portrayal of Mr. Sheels was authentic and he was able to connect with the audience to make them feel the truth and see the duality of Washington. The enslaved voice is so prominent at Mount Vernon especially in the Lives Bound Together special exhibition.
Like others pointed out, the entrance doors (with the names) made a great impact on me as a viewer. You can’t avoid the names; the names stop you and make you question why they are there and who are they? As our hosts pointed out, there are a wide variety of visitors, and some do not know Washington’s whole truth. That can be difficult for interpreters to challenge, but Mount Vernon triumphs and I believe they do because as Jonathan said they focus on telling the story (truth) through dignity and grace. I think visitors who didn’t know Washington owned slaves would focus on those names and want to know more.
One thing I would challenge Mount Vernon on is the choice to have a T-shirt in the gift shop that reads: “Property of Mount Vernon” (and a date that I can’t remember). I’m aware that the saying “Property of” is a trend for clothing, but I thought the shirt was inappropriate for that setting, especially since they opened up the estate and museum to highlight the slave’s voice and experience. I could be overthinking the significance of the shirt, but I’m curious if anyone else in the museum picked up on what that might mean to visitors? The museum and estate are telling an important story, and it would be a shame if a t-shirt disrupts that story, even if in the smallest of ways.