New Leadership At Gunston Hall

New Leadership At Gunston Hall

Museum director ousted by regents after year of controversy.

— After surviving more than a year of calls for his resignation, Gunston Hall museum director has been removed as head of the historic house site. In a meeting last week, the Board of Regents voted to replace David Reese, effective immediately. Mark Whatford, a senior staff member, will serve as acting director until a permanent replacement is hired. The decision comes after harsh criticism of financial mismanagement and unprofessional behavior.

“It seemed to me that there was a real management problem,” said Rob Hartwell, one of the leading voices calling for Reese’s ouster. “I think the regents made the right decision.”

The problems began in January 2011, when Reese fired education director Denise McHugh, a 20-year employee of the museum. Reese, who has been director since 2003, said the decision was based on financial considerations. In the summer of 2010, the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget reduced the budget for Gunston Hall by $5,000. Critics of the decision say the money involved did not warrant such drastic action, especially considering the educational mission of the institution. Hartwell and others called for the governor to take action; a campaign went on for 15 months.

“We have since learned that the director’s personnel relations are an even more compelling reason that his continued service is not in the best interest of Gunston Hall,” wrote nine museum supporters in an April 5 letter to the Regents of Gunston Hall.

THE LETTER was accompanied by a series of testimonials from people who have worked with Reese over the years. One called him a “petty autocrat” who is despised by many and respected by few. Yet another accuses Reese of presenting the home as a “lifeless display” lacking vitality and “familial warmth.”

“… he has driven away numerous volunteers, visitors and staff,” wrote former librarian Kevin Shupe. “I suspect that almost every employee or former employee can tell you numerous horror stories about how poorly he has managed the staff and treated the public.”

The testimonial letters presented to the regents portray Reese as a man who would regularly reduce people to tears.

“These tirades are unpredictable,” wrote docent Micheyl Bartholomew. “Mr. Reese can display a demeanor of charm and digress into a behavior unbefitting of a professional.”

The vast majority of criticism against Reese accused him of undercutting the educational mission of the museum, which celebrates the life of a man known as the “Forgotten Founder.”

During his time at the museum, he reduced education staffing, cut back on special events, eliminated a weeklong summer camp, and discontinued hands-on tours in favor of point-and-look tours. Many of his unpopular decisions were aimed at preserving the structure, including telling groups they could not serve refreshments or conduct dances. One group of living history players known as the Gunstonians felt particularly slighted by the new rules.

“This past Christmas, they were told to dance in the cellar,” wrote docent Charlotte Knipling.

Several of his management decisions were very unpopular. One decision that was widely criticized at the time was discontinuing the popular animal program, getting rid of the farm manager and sending the animals away. Another decision that drew ire was cutting back a three-day teachers institute to a one-day workshop. Even the way he chose to interpret the historic house came under fire.

“When I began giving tours at the mansion, it felt like a place connected to the experiences of the man and his family, be it an elaborate dinner for a festive occasion, a frantic packing of precious household belongings before the possible onslaught of the British Navy cruising the Potomac or even the realities of 18th life with rats scurrying around the bedrooms,” wrote former guide John Kuhlman. “Nowadays the mansion presents a lifeless display lacking vitality and the familial warmth of the Masons.”

A spokeswoman for Gunston Hall said that she was not able to arrange an interview with Reese or share his personal contact information. The executive committee for the regents is expected to form a search committee in the coming weeks to find a new executive director.