For many, going to historical landmarks to learn about the past conjures up memories of dry history classes, where young minds tended to wander.
By and large, the general adult population doesn't know much about our founding fathers. Over the years, the folks at Virginia's Mount Vernon estate have noticed many visitors to George Washington's home come away with only a basic understanding of our first president.
"For years, the experience for the visitors was to walk around the grounds and feel aesthetically satisfied, but not really learn much," said Ann Bay, Associate Director of Mount Vernon in charge of education.
After reading many surveys from Mount Vernon visitors, Bay and her colleagues noticed people wanted to get to know Washington, as a person, better. So the groups associated with Mount Vernon decided to do something about it.
Two key organizations - the Ford Motor Company Fund and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation - restored Mount Vernon. The result of the $100 million campaign is astonishing. Two state-of-the-art buildings opened last month to full crowds.
Bay said the new facilities give visitors a look at the everyday Washington, rather than the iconic presidential image. Exhibits depicting his childhood and his experience as a young soldier help visitors learn about the president's human side.
"We didn't want to design a 'book on the wall,'" Bay said.
Visitors also discover that Washington was not only a leader, but a successful entrepreneur in agriculture. He used the estate as a laboratory for testing out new farming practices, and helped introduce the mule to farming.
"He never thought he would become the first president," Bay said. "Washington thought he would just settle down and become a wealthy planter."
Inaugural visitors were wowed by the new Ford Orientation Center, Bay said. The history lesson starts right off the bat with an 18-minute film that highlights the important moments of Washington's career. The film is filled with accurate depictions of Washington's roles in key conflicts, including the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.
Another amazing exhibit at the Ford Orientation Center is the "Mount Vernon in Miniature" display. Visitors have been raving about the authenticity of the one-twelfth scale replica of the estate. Doorknobs turn, windows open and fireplaces work in the miniature mansion. The detail is painstaking, with fully furnished rooms, china, paintings and books.
With 23 galleries, 500 objects and high-quality theaters, the new Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center is an experience that cannot be missed. Jean-Antoine Houdon's terra cotta bust of Washington is the centerpiece of "The Houdon Bust Gallery." The bust is installed at Washington's height, giving visitors an idea of how he towered over many of his contemporaries.
Other exhibits feature a peek at George and Martha's daily lives, a display of personal objects used and worn by the Washington family, and a collection of the president's books, manuscripts and maps.
A visit to Mount Vernon is easy. After a quick flight into Reagan National Airport, the drive is a straightforward 14-mile trip south.
•Mount Vernon Estate &
•Donald W. Reynolds Foundation
Did you know?
•Since 1860, more than 80 million visitors have made George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens the most popular in America.
•The Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center are the components the estate's latest $100 million campaign to boost the visitors' knowledge of Washington.
•The Ford Motor Company Fund has had a partnership with Mount Vernon since the company donated a fire engine in 1923.
•Mount Vernon is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, America's oldest national preservation association.
•The "Mount Vernon in Miniature" exhibit is valued at more than $500,000. The model took two years to complete.