Our most venerated forefather bares his teeth but not his soul in Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon, at the Heinz History Center. And depending on your view of national mythmaking, that might not be entirely a bad thing.
The traveling exhibit, organized by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, promises a fresh perspective on the man who, as a young surveyor, wrote in his diary in 1753 that the fork of the Ohio was "extremely well situated for a fort." And indeed, in the long corridor approaching the exhibit, reproductions of cracked paintings are spliced together to form two fragmented portraits where four eyes, all Washington's, stare out: the new views.
The first exhibited item is an icon of American history -- an original and instantly recognizable 1798 Gilbert Stuart portrait. We then view the first president in a full-scale diorama, as a redheaded 19-year-old in the Virginia woods. Abetted by animatronic squirrels and birds, the scene is subtly tangible. But it's mythmaking nonetheless: Washington is presented as a giant. Other forensically accurate models show him leading the Continental Army on horseback, then being sworn in as president.
In contrast to such historical tableaux, the Washington family Bible adds some humanity. The good book lies in a climate-controlled glass case, handwritten notes visible in its margins. Nearby, text panels about Freemasonry illuminate the secret society that shaped Washington and, consequently, America.
Replica storefronts, church pews and music help viewers get lost in the 18th century. Everyday items like plates, axes and a watering can from Mount Vernon presage a showstopper: a replica of the yellow wedding dress worn by Martha Washington. Meanwhile, in a glass case shaped like the Washington Monument is by far the most striking artifact: Washington's famous false teeth. They are made of ivory, human and cow teeth fixed on a hinged metal base; they look like they would have hurt, a lot.
The dress and the teeth change the tone of the exhibit, bringing visitors tangibly closer to the real George Washington. Yet somehow, he remains at a polite distance.
That distance might partly reflect the exhibit's superficial treatment of Washington's family estate, Mount Vernon. There is no sense of Mount Vernon's vast grounds, for instance, and little mention of farming.
The real Mount Vernon, though likewise operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, depicts a different George Washington altogether. Rather than mythologizing him, the site portrays our first president as an innovative and successful farmer. Visitors tour the room where he died, and observe such signifiers of material wealth as carved ceilings and marble mantels. Washington, it is conveyed, wanted his home to symbolize how the new nation should be: elegant, opulent, strong and silent.
If you want to know the real George Washington, go to the back porch of Mount Vernon. Hear the river, and sit in a rocking chair. George Washington owned slaves, who were buried in a communal grave. One headstone placed by MLVA commemorates countless lives. This puts America's history -- and its first president -- in a shocking perspective. The traveling exhibit, by contrast, mentions Washington's slave-holding just briefly.
Its title notwithstanding, Discover the Real George Washington intentionally maintains the familiar portrayal of Washington as a mythical giant. Staunch women with buttons up to their necks will tell Americans their history the way they feel it should be told, not necessarily the way it was. Here is Washington's story much as it might have been told in the 18th century, as if the world had never changed.
Perhaps that's defensible. We Americans need these myths so badly. And in this exhibit, the Ladies give us what we need -- a hero.
That Washington was a real human being, of course, is evidenced in the love letters to his wife and the oxidized false teeth. But this is not the point of the exhibit. Washington's soul did not travel to Pittsburgh: The myth did. In order to get closer to the real George Washington, one must visit the real Mount Vernon. George Washington is still there.
Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon continues through July 18. Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-454-6000
- Photo courtesy of Heinz History Center
- The guy that one city was named after: A display depicting George Washington in his Continental Army days.