Americans know George Washington as the first president of the United States and recognize him by his likeness on the dollar bill and 25-cent piece. But Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCulloch says Washington is much more than an historical icon. "If ever there was an American who made his life matter for the cause of liberty and the good of all mankind, it was George Washington. Nearly 18 years in all he was the signal most important American alive."
McCulloch, author of 1776, a history of the year America declared its independence from Great Britain, addressed his comments about Washington at the grand opening of Mount Vernon's new Donald W. Reynolds Education Center last October. The center is designed to teach visitors of all ages about the man who called Mount Vernon home. "It's our job to get people excited about Washington as the soldier, as the President, as the entrepreneur, as the family man, as the farmer -- really show the whole picture," says Jim Reese, executive director of George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.
Reese says children come to Washington's home knowing very little about the man who led the American army for eight years through the Revolutionary War; headed the Constitutional Convention, where the framework for U.S. democracy was drafted; and ultimately served eight years as President. "They're not learning much about Washington. They come here almost like a blank sheet of paper. My textbook, going way, way back in the fourth grade, had ten times more coverage of George Washington then the textbook used in that same school today."
Reese wants to get those kids and even older Americans who may not be attuned to history, excited about Washington, so they will want to learn even more when they leave Mount Vernon.
Located just 26 kilometers south of the nation's capital in Virginia, Mount Vernon has been open to the public for nearly 150 years. One million people pass through its gates every year. With the new education center that opened last October, they are getting a multimedia experience.
Thirteen galleries and three theaters are specifically targeted to teens and children, with levers to pull, buttons to push, and videos to watch. A Revolutionary War Theater puts the audience in the middle of the action as it highlights Washington's role as commander-in-chief of the American troops during the country's 18th century war for independence from Britain.
Collin Wilson, 17, describes it as "in your face." "There are a lot of special effects going on: cannon shots, snow falling, smoke drifting up. It's a great learning experience."
"Sitting in the theater and having snow fall on you, sitting in the seats and feeling them shake from the cannons. I couldn't teach that," says Jane Forehand, who homeschools her three children. She drove more than 300 kilometers to bring them to Mount Vernon. "It's something they can experience. Even though it's not like real life or being there, it stimulates all the parts of the brain to think about what it was like. "
All visitors to Mount Vernon, regardless of their age, will learn that Washington's life, even without special effects, was an exciting one, from boyhood to military leader, to President and beyond.
Mount Vernon executive director Jim Reese says Washington was not the stodgy-looking old man he appears to be on the dollar bill. "Washington was the most robust, the most adventurous, the most exciting, the most athletic, the most attractive of all the founding fathers," Reese says. "He wasn't just the most important and powerful man of this important period; he was also the most fascinating."
That's the man visitors to Mount Vernon are getting to know through its newly redesigned visitor and education center, as the nation marks the 275th birthday of George Washington.