Missouri History Museum’s new George Washington exhibit goes behind the iconic figure on the dollar bill to reveal the first president’s true self. Life-sized figures and intimate objects tell the story of Washington’s greatest interests and diverse career paths—from a farmer, surveyor, architect and military general to president of the United States. LN recently spoke with Elizabeth Chambers, collections manager for the president’s hometown of Mount Vernon, to learn more about Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon, which runs through Jan. 20.
LN: How did the idea for the exhibition begin?
EC: We all know the George Washington who appears on the dollar bill, but Mount Vernon thought to find the real George Washington. We discovered the real Washington was, by all accounts, a very charismatic, athletic and intelligent individual, and we felt that image was getting lost. So in 2004, we launched a study where forensic scientists, curators and artists worked together to digitally recreate what he would look like at different parts in his life—creating life-size figures of him at ages 19, 45 and 57.
LN: Describe the exhibit’s layout.
EC: The exhibit has 11 sections, starting with Gilbert Stewart’s portrait of George Washington on the dollar bill, then we deconstruct him—showing his youth, where he was born into the upper-middle class; and at age 9, experienced his father’s death. Washington was mainly a self-taught man with a strong work ethic, ambition and self-reliance. The first life-sized figure depicts him as a 19-year-old land surveyor in the woods of Virginia, then it goes on to show his early military career during the French and Indian War. As a commanding general of the Revolutionary Army, he was instrumental in developing spy technology, such as invisible ink and secret codes. Another section shows his role as a farmer in Mount Vernon. Though he spent a lot of time away from home, he was constantly managing the estate through weekly reports from his farm manager. It includes farm tools and other objects related to slavery, which was a way of life when Washington was a young man. But as he aged, his views evolved; and in his will, he freed his slaves. In addition, a presidency section has a figure of him being sworn in.
LN: What are some of the unusual objects in the exhibit?
EC: We have surveying equipment, a compass, a powder horn, military manuals and weaponry, camp equipment, Masonic items, the Washington family Bible and other books from his library, as well as a copy of a journal about the French and Indian War that was published and actually made him a semi-celebrity here and in Europe. And, of course, there’s everyone’s favorite: his dentures. They were not made out of wood, but ivory and human and cow teeth, embedded in lead.
LN: How were the objects obtained?
EC: Most of the objects are from the Mount Vernon collection. We realize not everyone can make it to Mount Vernon to see our full collection representing Washington, so we have brought it across the nation.
LN: What are some other interesting aspects of the exhibit?
EC: There also is a section featuring Martha Washington, who was reportedly an equal partner he relied upon for advice. During her husband’s presidency, she created the role of first lady, which included activities such as hosting dinners for members of Congress. The exhibit also includes a reproduction of her wedding dress, wedding slippers and pearls.
LN: Why do you think people will be interested to see this exhibit?
EC: With the recent election, it is interesting to see where we started and where we’ve come. It’s always a good thing to reflect back and learn from the past.
LN: What about this exhibit will move attendees?
EC: To see objects that were actually used and held by Washington is very powerful. The most intimate things you would be able to see of anyone are in this collection.