Exhibit examines life of George Washington

By CLAIRE GOUDREAU | March 7, 2019

The Homewood Museum is displaying The Many Faces of George Washington, a special exhibit that aims to explore the story behind George Washington’s legacy and persona. The exhibit is on loan from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History with other items from regional museums and the University’s Special Collections.

Homewood Museum Assistant Curator and co-curator of the exhibit Michelle Fitzgerald told The News-Letter that the exhibit is designed to present a more inclusive and complete picture of Washington’s life.

“We tend to think of George Washington as an almost mythical figure. Through this exhibit, we’ve intended to present a more multi-dimensional and human Washington,” she said. “Like all of us, he played different roles to different people over the course of his life.”

The exhibit features information exploring Washington’s roles as president, soldier, husband and slave owner, among others.

Museum visitors can see many artifacts and replicas, including land surveys from Washington’s early career and letters written by Washington during and after the Revolutionary War, from the University’s Special Collections.

“I find these letters, particularly the one he wrote during a low point in the Revolutionary War, to be very humanizing,” Fitzgerald said. “It gives you a chance to see some of his personality.”

Artifacts similar to ones Washington would have owned are also on display, including china, cutlery and surveyor’s tools.

There is also a collection of commemorative items, many from the period following Washington’s death, that feature either the likeness of Washington’s face, his wife Martha or their home at Mount Vernon.

The exhibit contrasts Washington’s real personality and history with his persona, which has, according to the exhibit, at times slipped almost into fiction. It also puts an emphasis on Washington’s role as a slave owner. 

“Washington was adamantly opposed to slavery; yet he knew that any outright effort on his part to end the practice would likely result in the southern states seceding from the union,” an exhibit panel read.

Washington’s slaves were not freed until after his death.

The exhibit includes handcrafted replica bilboes and collars made by the Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland in 2018. These items, which the exhibit calls “dehumanizing,” are examples of what slaves would have worn to restrict their movements. Visitors are allowed to touch the reproductions to examine them, although they are asked out of respect to not wear them.

Fitzgerald explained that items like these are necessary in understanding Washington’s life and legacy, especially since he and his policies helped shaped the country’s trajectory.

“The ‘Founding Fathers’ were real people. It’s worth examining [Washington’s] ownership of enslaved people as well as his other personal decisions and political contributions to paint a more nuanced portrait of Washington, the man,” she said.

This part of the exhibit was especially relevant during Black History Month in February, during which the Homewood Museum had free admission. Homewood Museum Weekend Manager Ashley Tippie explained that to honor the month, the museum focused its tours more heavily on the stories of the Conner and the Ross families, who were once enslaved in the house.

“One thing I love about this museum is how much they show the lives of the enslaved here,” Tippie said. “It is super important, and it’s kind of rare in museums, especially the further south you get.”

As a result of reduced prices and this new angle, the Homewood Museum saw an uptick in visitors during February.

Although Tippie explained that the museum’s main draw is still the story of the Carroll family, who once lived in the house, visitors are usually enthusiastic about the Washington exhibit after learning about it.

“As soon as people get in here we tell them that the George Washington exhibit’s there, and they’re like ‘Oh yeah! That sounds super cool!’ and they go back and see it. They really love it,” Tippie said. “[Washington] does have such a big connection to the Carrolls because he knew Harriet Chew who married Charles Carroll of Homewood. He also knew her father very well.”

Homewood Museum Docent Pat Yevics believes the museum’s exhibits are great for those interested in the Revolutionary War.

“It’s actually gotten me to find out more information about Revolutionary War-era Baltimore because there’s so many connections throughout the city and the surrounding areas,” she said. “If [students] have questions and we don’t have the answers, we’ll help them find them.”

Fitzgerald shared this sentiment.

“We are always looking for more opportunities that we can provide for Hopkins students with an interest in museums,” she said.

The exhibit, which opened Jan. 15, will be on display until March 21 and is free for Hopkins students and faculty.

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