Donald W. Reynolds Education Center


of an Exhibition

by Stephanie Fitzwater

Published on February 17, 2010, Modified on October 18, 2010

  • Description:

    For people who know me, it’s not surprising to learn that Presidents Day is one of my favorite days of the year. I had visited Mt. Vernon a handful of times previously, but never with as much time or as much background knowledge from my museum education graduate studies as this visit on Presidents Day 2010. From my prior visits, the jam-packed exhibits at the Donald W. Reynolds Education Center (opened October 2006) with Hollywood-esque effects seemed to be trying too hard to reach visitors, sacrificing educational quality for blockbuster sexiness. Many people I know have heard of the Mt. Vernon “revamp,” with the technology at the top of the list of their most memorable moments. I was eager to reexamine it on this visit with a better trained, more technical eye.

    The Education Center, in the underground complex that also features the food court and gift shop, contrasts the Museum (separate from the Center and housing a more traditional museum experience) by attempting to provide a more engaging, interactive, and provocative experience. The Center’s galleries aim to transform visitor knowledge of George Washington from “boring, old, dead guy” to “dynamic human and action hero.” From the falling snow and rumbling seats in one of the theaters, to the forensic lab setting immediately within the Center entrance, the galleries are unlike most museum spaces, historic houses, or presidential exhibits. Though quite different from most museums, the galleries do contain many of the same elements as featured in newer, more interactive exhibits across the country: immersive environments with sound effects and mood lighting, hands-on opportunities with reproduction artifacts, inquiry-based exploration integrated into panels and labels, and collection artifacts blended into the environment. The experience is designed to fit the individual into the larger historical narrative through sensory exploration and appeals to universal human concepts.

    Mt. Vernon begins this process by taking a subject many people feel is stale (history) and turning it into something full of mystery, intrigue, struggle, and humanity by beginning the galleries with a forensic lab setting and accompanying videos. The videos set the stage for the quest to reinvent George Washington by describing the need to and process of recreating him physically. The “CSI” approach to a founding father captures visitor interest through current “sexy” cultural trends, which continue throughout the galleries in other videos like “George Washington: Spymaster.” The innovative atmosphere that begins the visitor experiences establishes a more engaging and entertaining feel that continue throughout the visit.

    The galleries progress chronologically from Washington’s early life, through the American Revolution and his presidency, and end with his legacy. At times, the technology in the exhibits effectively highlights the interpretative key points of the exhibits. For example, shortly after the end of the American Revolution galleries is what looks like a case in a wall with a mannequin of gentleman planter George Washington. While examining the mannequin, the lighting changes to reveal King George Washington. The simple use of lighting and mirrors created a stirring point of discussion for me and other visitors as we pondered just how close our country came to being a monarchy.

    Slightly more technical, in the section of the galleries discussing slavery at Mt. Vernon, visitors clustered around a video of historians discussing their opinions of Washington and his relationship to slavery. The video itself embraced the complexity of the issue and, by providing a diversity of views in an honest way, created a forum for dialogue (internal and external) about the topic. For increasingly complex technology, the extremely popular and flashy film of some of Washington’s victories during the Revolution has visitors queuing the crowded galleries for a Disney-like experience. The film makes the content pop and provides a rest for an audience that might be on information overload and need entertainment.

    Other uses of technology in the gallery provide more mixed effects. Just before the American Revolution section is a narrow elbow-shaped corridor exploring a hodgepodge of issues that influenced Washington. The corner of this “elbow” contains two videos, both of which were so crowded that I couldn’t get near enough to watch them. A small theater to the side featured a video about George and Martha’s marriage, but the advertisement noting the narration by Glenn Close causes her to almost outshine Martha herself and jolted me from my immersion in history. Just outside the theater is a small section with two church pews and a video on religion, but this again had too little space for those wanting to both see and hear the film. The collection of seemingly-unrelated content in a crowded space made this area a bottleneck and caused me and other visitors to squeeze by in search of roomier exhibits.

    While no piece of technology received a total negative, at times I did find areas either slightly too loud, too confusing, or too “showy”. For instance, I chuckled when I saw the animatronic continental soldier moaning in his bunk, but the panel of buttons and lights highlighting aspects of soldier life did not enhance the content for me. Buttons that spotlighted reproductions in the camp setting provided little explanation and little connection to the quotes nearby on the panel. Also, an area in the slavery section included audio readings of slave testimonies (I think?), but there was not a place to stand where I could clearly hear or find an explanation to the audio.

    Ultimately, I greatly warmed to the Education Center since my prior visits. Technological elements that previously caused me to feel like the spirit and complexities of history were replaced by Hollywood special effects instead demonstrated alternate paths for historical, intellectual, and social engagement. The Center still suffers from cramped spaces that might resemble sardine cans during school group season and technology that doesn’t always hit the educational bullseye, but overall, Mt. Vernon’s Education Center did its job: I left pleasantly chatting about history and George Washington. From what I heard on the way to my car, I wasn’t the only one.

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