While on the bus ride to Mount Vernon, I had some expectations of what I might see and do while there. I would probably learn about the great American, first president George Washington and his legacy, perhaps I’ll hear about the apple tree story. I knew it would be a different trip than my expectations as soon as I learned that our first stop would be the exhibit, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The tour of the exhibit with the curator provided a new perspective and different lens to the George Washington story. At the same time, as a first timer, it guided the way I would remember Mount Vernon and challenged my own perceptions of G.W.
Later on in the day, we met the character actor who plays G.W.’s valet, otherwise known as an enslaved person, Christopher Sheels. In a way, he brought the exhibit in the museum section of Mount Vernon to life on the site of Mount Vernon. He gave a face to a person with no known depiction. His passionate performance in the green house had a few themes that I can still remember, some include: G.W. has a man with two faces, the political and the private, and does anyone want to take his (Sheels’) place? or why would it be ok for me if it wouldn’t be for you?
I thought about how my experience would have been different if I had toured just the mansion, saw G.W.’s tomb, and visited the education center. I would have had a different perspective of our first president. But, I found it more memorable to have learned about him as a complex man, one grappling with enslaved people under his control, through the stories of the enslaved people.We were able to learn about his private thoughts which we learned did not always reflect his actions. Through my experience, I was still able to learn about the history of the site and the daily events while learning the truth about the major population of people living on the site: the people forced to live there. Upon reflecting upon this, I am again reminded the power of influence that museums and historical sites have on the visitor. They can bring stories more to the forefront to shape one’s experience and challenge old beliefs. I learned that character actors can connect with people through stories (not just reporting facts) and, as a good interpreter, make one feel new emotions and think about a life in someone’s shoes.
The place left an impression on me as my expectations and understanding of life on Mount Vernon has changed. In a way, it feels as if for the better. I learned more realistic circumstances of the site instead of the glorified depictions of George Washington, the one that involves the apple tree story.