November 16, 2006

The Disneyfication of Mount Vernon

Call me extremely, extremely skeptical:

The new orientation center, and a second building housing a museum and education center, opened October 27 with attractions that portray Washington as the "nation's first action hero." A 20-minute adventure film called "We Fight to Be Free" highlights his career as commander of the Continental Army. Wax statues -- meticulously created with age-regression technology -- depict Washington as a young man. His false teeth are on display, but so are his pistol and sword.

Mount Vernon officials made the changes after concluding that the estate was perpetuating the image of Washington as a stodgy, impersonal icon. They sought to change that image, particularly among school children who make up a third of the 1 million annual visitors. They also wanted to push Mount Vernon to the vanguard of museums and historical sites telling stories in a multimedia age.

"It's definitely an improvement," Anuj Verma, a senior at Irvington High School in Fremont, California, who was making a return visit to Mount Vernon when he joined thousands of sightseers there on the new attractions' opening day. "Before, they didn't give you much information about George Washington himself. You kind of just saw the house."

Pardon me if I don't place much value in the opinion of a high school senior.

But the balance between education and entertainment can be a tricky one. Another new attraction is a 14-minute film that uses what Mount Vernon calls "immersive technology" -- the seats rumble when cannons are fired, and fake snow falls during the scene depicting the Delaware crossing.

These types of special effects are instantly recognizable to any kid who's seen a movie in a theme park where audiences routinely feel their seats shake and are subject to fake surf, rain or wind. But The Washington Post's architecture critic unfavorably compared the new Mount Vernon attractions to a Disney World experience and lamented that knowledgeable visitors might not learn much in the education center.

Mount Vernon director James Rees defends the approach, however, saying it's a way of entertaining viewers without giving scholarship short shrift.

Pardon my cynicism again, but it's been my general observation that there isn't much room in that tent for the both of them. And guess which one gets shown the flap first.

UPDATE: Speaking of o' George and entertainment, here's a perfect opportunity to bring back this (NSFW):

When you think about it, how much different is this from what the folks at Mt. Vernon are seeking to do?

Posted by Robert at November 16, 2006 10:06 AM | TrackBack

Villainette #2 (aged 7) has visited Mt Vernon since the new center has opened. She thought it was cool. We had visited Mt Vernon before the new center was opened as well. Her verdict was that the new center was cool and the movies neat, but she learned more from her visit with dad.

Made me feel good.

Posted by: The Maximum Leader at November 16, 2006 10:37 AM