It’s really been some time since I’ve added to this particular blog. However, a recent family vacation has given me the opportunity to observe what is quite obviously a creeping case of political correctness emanating from one of the country’s most revered historical sites.
I’m just a messenger here, as I am old enough to have visited a number of these locations nearly 20 years ago. While I have my own opinions about what should and shouldn’t be presented at a historical site, I do know PC drek when I hear it. Allow me to elaborate.
Our trip was primarily based around visiting DC, Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello and finally Mount Vernon. While a one day dash onto the Mall environs yielded little time in any one place to make a judgment that I was comfortable with, it seems that there had been some “dumbing down” of the exhibits. There wasn’t nearly the amount of descriptive information associated with the exhibits as I’d seen in previous visits. Granted, the years may have diminished my perceptions, but that was what I was left with. In fairness, I will say that the actual appearance of the exhibits had been upgraded.
If you’re contemplating a visit to the Mall, using the Metro is the way to go. We boarded at the most southern station on the Blue Line, and had a pleasant 53 minute trip directly to the Smithsonian stop which cost us slightly more than three dollars. Sure, we paid four some bucks to park our car, but it was far less than we would have been required to cough up had we parked in downtown DC (if we were able to find parking at all). The ability to park and ride made it one of the more pleasant travel parts of our journey.
Colonial Williamsburg was another world. I’ll admit I didn’t know quite what to expect. Not everyone was “in character”, but those that were had it wired. It is such a large site, and done so well, that spending a whole day on the property is only a good start. It is a different experience than a museum as it is literally a living anachronism. Put it on your list when you visit that area. It is a high quality experience.
The next stop was Jamestown. The National Park Service provided an excellent presentation in the form of our guide and lecturer, Mr. Kelso. As opposed to the rest of the tour guides encountered, he walked and talked us through the site over the next two hours (as opposed to just trying to “push” us through the site). Willingness to spend the time to actually discuss history, provide in-depth answers to our questions, and display a real interest in the subject made it a very different experience from that provided at Monticello. There were all sorts of informational tidbits offered. For instance, were you aware that there is little evidence of involuntary servitude (slavery) in Jamestown prior to 1640? Now there is as bit of significant history that leads to more questions. I will admit that it piqued my interest, as I thought it had always been with us in the colonies. The progression into slavery is not a subject that is generally discussed in schools, or the popular media. Such things are discussed at Jamestown.
There were actually open digs going on. It’s fascinating to see the disturbance in the earth where recently discovered graves are being uncovered. Mr. Kelso spent another 45 minutes after the tour answering questions from a small group of enthusiasts. It was clear that he relished the teaching experience. As an individual who taught at the university level for four years, it was fascinating to watch someone who does teaching well.
I liked his style.
I must say that the personalized “royal treatment” we received at Jamestown rather spoiled us for the rest of the trip. With this cautionary note, I’ll proceed with a description of how the presentation of an historical site should not be done. Unfortunately, that site is Monticello. Personal perception is always suspect, but it is what we use to analyze the world.
On arriving at the Jefferson Visitors Center, we purchased our tickets and were assigned a 10:40 am tour. Loading of the bus at the base of the mountain was quite efficient and we arrived in plenty of time for our appointment. As before, we entered through Jefferson’s front door. With our tour guide, we began our visit in the entrance hall. The description of the clock, and gong was the same, but things deteriorated from there. It became pretty apparent that the lecture was aimed at somewhere south of a ten year old mentality. At least that was the feedback I started getting from my own children. The kids actually took me aside after the tour, and made specific commentary that they were NOT morons!
Well, OK! I disagree with them occasionally on that subject, but in this particular case they were correct. The tour lecture was aimed far below the mental capacity of the folks that were in our group. They missed their target by a mile, and I expected better.
Now here’s the clincher. The rumored dalliance between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings was broached. Unfortunately, it was presented as more than just a salacious rumor. The guide actually attempted to validate the story by stating that “historians” state that it is true. I would have loved to discuss the subject, but the commentary immediately moved on after that bit of bovine scatology. Now, I know that the scientific evidence, taken from mitochondrial DNA, indicates that there is some Jefferson blood in Hemming’s descendants. That’s a really fascinating bit of scientific detective work, but there is absolutely NO evidence that Thomas Jefferson specifically was involved (William G. Hyland, In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal). It is quite probable that we will never know for sure which Jefferson fathered Hemmning’s child. Again, there is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson was the father.
So why would a Monticello tour guide present such a misleading, and unprovable, position? It is arguably a PC statement, reminiscent of the recently discredited man-made global warming hoax. Both seem to be born of political expediency, rather than scientific evidence. As to why an employee would be taking the low road in Jefferson’s own home is perplexing.
After the disappointment at Monticello, we came to Mt. Vernon. What a difference! Washington’s home has really changed, and for the better. Two decades have brought the Ford Visitor’s Center, and one of the best museums I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. The new museum is so “low key” that it’s gone subterranean. That’s right! It’s literally underground. I suspect it was buried so that it didn’t detract from Mt. Vernon itself. The combination of audiovisual presentations, exhibits, and a really polished facility make this museum world class. It’s not the Smithsonian, but it is the best confluence of technology, facility and exhibits of any museum that I’ve experienced.
If you haven’t been to Mt. Vernon since the museum was built (Or !horrors!, didn’t realize it was there when you visited) you really need to go again. When finished with the tour, it’s going to become apparent that GW was the real deal. I’ll admit I believed this before I went, but it is good enough to affect your view of our first president. The man was a class act.
Top of descent is just a few minutes away, so it’s time to close up shop and stow all my electronic toys. I’d say the whole trip came out on the black side in the travel ledger. Yes, Monticello slipped due to the quality of the tour guide. TJ is still what he was, and Monticello is still an architectural wonder. Poor presentation does not change reality. If you have the time, go see all of these sites. Every one of them is worthwhile, and your children will benefit from the experience for the rest of their lives.