Mount Vernon’s new exhibit invites guests to walk in George Washington’s shoes

Watch re-enactment videos, listen to opinions from the first president’s trusted advisers and decide how you would proceed if you were Washington.

Photo courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

When it comes to keeping history at the forefront of contemporary conversation, part of preservation involves embracing change. And at Mount Vernon, an assortment of recent and ongoing transformations are doing just that.

In October 2017, the Blue Room at George and Martha Washington’s estate reopened after undergoing a seven-month makeover. The Chintz room, where the step-granddaughter of the country’s first president once slept, was recently restored as well, and the central passage—after scientific analysis revealed what color the walls would have been during Washington’s lifetime—was repainted bright white. Modifications to the front parlor continue, with an approximate end date roughly eight months from now.

But the most exciting recent changes are the $2 million upgrades to the Revolutionary War 4-D Theater—featuring a new historical film, lighting effects, improved audio, rumbling seats and an “angrier,” more blizzard-like snow that falls upon the audience while George Washington crosses the Delaware River during the film—that reopened in December, plus the brand new, interactive Be Washington exhibit that opened to the public Feb. 12.

“I think Mount Vernon has had technology for a while—even the Revolutionary War 4-D Theater was kind of innovative when it launched in 2006—but I think this is a big step forward for us,” says Rob Shenk, the Senior Vice President of Visitor Engagement at Mount Vernon. “Be Washington is a first-person, interactive, high-media experience, and those are the things that we hope will really resonate with younger folks who come here.”

Photo courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Be Washington, a $3 million investment, resembles an early American classroom with three rows of wide, rectangular wooden desks that can be shared by two people—with a couple of modern twists: the desks’ surfaces feature touch screens and a massive nearly floor-to-ceiling screen stands in for a giant blackboard at the front of the room.

In one sitting, visitors can view one of four scenarios: The Battle of Second Trenton, The Newburgh Conspiracy, The Genet Affair and The Whiskey Rebellion. Guests are introduced to the historical event by virtual host Christopher Jackson (who played George Washington in the musical Hamilton) and via videos filmed over the past year at local spots such as Loudoun County’s Goose Creek Stone Bridge and Gadsby’s Tavern.

Then, mimicking real-life events, George Washington is forced to make a difficult decision, one that visitors are expected to grapple with as well.

To make the best educated guess, each pair of visitors can select from their desk devices which of Washington’s advisers they want to get advice from and vote on whether they agree or disagree with the individual. There is a time limit, however, so guests will not be able to listen to every opinion. This consultation time is periodically interrupted by “dispatches” that may sway one’s decision, and at the end of the roughly 20-minute experience, guests will reveal what they would have done if they were in Washington’s shoes during that particular moment in time. The room’s results will then be presented and compared to not only what Washington wound up doing, but also to previous groups’ responses.

Photo courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

“When I first came [to Mount Vernon] there was no Netflix, there was no Facebook, there was no internet, there were no smartphones. All of these things are new and they changed the landscape about how young people in particular really engage with content,” Shenk says, noting that though Mount Vernon’s target audiences are millennials and those in Generation Z, this exhibit appeals to a broad array of interests. “For us, Be Washington was to take the same great stories from Washington’s life—we didn’t have to invent those, those are still as amazing as ever—but really look at [and change] how we tell those stories.”

These stories won’t be told exclusively through Mount Vernon for long, because in a few months a downloadable version of the Revolutionary War film and a network-able web version of the Be Washington scenarios will become available for individuals and schools around the world to share in the experience.

“We’re tasked with the mission of keeping the legacy and interest in George Washington alive, and what’s different from 50 years ago is that we can do these things and have an exciting experience here, but we can also take it to where people are,” Shenk said.

The Revolutionary War 4-D Theater and Be Washington exhibit, with access included in general admission, are both located in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.

Pro tip: On busier days, make your way over to the Be Washington exhibit first, early in the morning, as crowds are expected to build throughout the day.