The Three Georges

The Three Georges

From surveyor, to solider, to president, to citizen — Washington is the American experience

Snow fell on the theater audience, their seats shaking from the concussion of cannon fire. Sensitive subjects, like slavery, were addressed. And the most famous dentures in American history where on display.

There was plenty to experience for those attending the official ribbon cutting at Mount Vernon Estate's new Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. Its two theaters, 23 galleries, and multiple educational vignettes captivated and enveloped the 700 plus invited guests to this treasure trove of the life and times of the nation's first Commander In Chief.

"The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation's generous gift of $24 million — the largest single donation in our history — enables us to give visitors an incredibly compelling experience at Mount Vernon. It will introduce visitors to the real George Washington through showing the fascinating details of his life," said James C. Rees, executive director, Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens.

Entering the center, guests pass the bust of Reynolds, prominently displayed at the head of the marble staircase that leads them to one of the most unusually designed structures among America's myriad historic sites. All but the entrance to the museum/education center are located under the four-acre pasture just inside Mount Vernon's main gate. Earlier, that pasture had served as the seating area and stage for the dedication ceremonies.

With 65 percent of the new complex's 66,700-square foot underground, it ensures that the pastoral setting and views to and from the Mansion are preserved, according to Rees. Traditional Hogg Island sheep, like those Washington raised, will graze in the pasture as visitors view the changing scene of his life and experience from a 19-year-old surveyor to his tragic death at age 67.

WITH OVER 500 objects in six permanent galleries and a changing exhibit space, the 6,000 square feet Museum is not meant to be a generic decorative arts museum but rather an in-depth exploration into the taste, style, and personalities of not only George but the family. Artifacts are those most closely associated with life at Mount Vernon, the Revolutionary War and his other military sieges, his presidency, and, finally, his death.

"We trust the education center will enable future visitors to learn more about one of our nation's most important Americans during

their Mount Vernon visit. This new center promises to become the

equivalent of a presidential library for the nation's first and greatest hero," said Fred W. Smith, chairman of the board, Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

Throughout the museum are 10 original videos produced by The History Channel describing everything from the forensic process used to recreate the most authentic likeness of Washington ever brought forth to "The Dilemma of Slavery." The latter documents the evolution of Washington's views on slavery and explores his growing awareness that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the new republic.

As for his likeness, it was determined early on in the education center's planning process that it was essential for visitors to have a true impression of what the real Washington looked like as the 19-year-old surveyor, the 45-year-old Commanding General, and the 57-year-old President. Those three Georges are portrayed by three lifelike wax figures with real human hair and bodies outfitted with realistic period clothing.

The "Reconstructing George Washington Gallery" explains, in video and displays, the processes undertaken by a team of experts to bring forth the end result. It details the unprecedented venture to unite the fields of art, science, and historical research.

Additionally, there are a series of galleries that explore, in detail every aspect of Washington's life. Among them are galleries entitled "Introducing Washington's World," "From Soldier to Statesman," "At Home with the Washingtons," "Young Virginian," "Upstart Colonist Officer," "Visionary Entrepreneur," and "The People's President."

COMPLEMENTING ALL THE GALLERIES and artifacts are two theater experiences. The first, in the Elizabeth and David Bruce Smith stadium-style theater, presents a fast-paced recount of three of Washington's military engagements at Boston, Trenton and Yorktown. It not only traces the Revolutionary War through those three decisive battles, but also brings home the hardships of Valley Forge and the Delaware River crossing that Christmas night by having the audience experience the snowfall and feel the thunderous concussion of cannonade. This experience uses a combination of narration, changing battle maps, as well as visual and physical effects to evoke a feeling of reality.

At the other end of the spectrum is the 5-minute film, "Legacy" shown in the Gay Hart Gaines theater-in-the-round. It combines

narrations by author David McCullough and General Colin Powell with a moving rendition of "America The Beautiful" by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

A third intimate theater features a dramatic film focused on the 40-year marriage of George and Martha Washington. This History Channel production is narrated by screen and stage actress Glenn Close. It is presented in an 18th century music room setting with spindle back chairs and the screen positioned over a fireplace.

The Museum/Education Center is not something that can be adequately absorbed in only one visit. After leaving, one has the lingering feeling that something important was missed or not fully explored. Once is not enough.

As Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald Connolly said following his visit, "This is a great addition to the historical trove that is Fairfax County. [Washington] is the jewel in the crown for us. This will educate millions as to who he really was and why he is so important to all of us and the history of this nation."