Yesterday my wife and I spent a couple of hours at Monticello’s new visitor center, which opened only a few weeks ago. Those of you who have visited Monticello in the past know that the old facility was too far removed from the actual home and the structure itself was in serious need of repair. The new complex sits right below Jefferson’s home and is accessible either by bus or a short walk. The structure itself is spread out and the various attractions are easily accessible from a very pretty and spacious courtyard. This makes for easy access to the movie theater, bookstore, restaurant, and exhibits. The layout is apparently designed to control the flood of visitors that travel to Monticello each year and it does so effectively judging by the size of the crowd.
After purchasing our tickets [$20 for adults – up from $15] we headed on over to the movie theater. The film “Thomas Jefferson’s World” has a running time of roughly 20 minutes and attempts to give the viewer the big picture of Jefferson’s life and his love for Monticello. The producers took full advantage of the beauty of Monticello and the surrounding landscapes, but the overall thrust of the film is on the theme of freedom as understood in the Declaration of Independence and on his Bill for Establishing Freedom in the State of Virginia. The movie gives a nod to slave life and a passing reference to Sally Hemmings, but the bigger problem is the absence of Jefferson, the man. The final few moments are devoted to the legacy of Jefferson’s vision of freedom, which includes images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela, and, most recently, the inauguration of Barack Obama. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but one wonders whether the time could have been better spent exploring Jefferson’s life as opposed to a legacy that he, arguably, could not have interpreted or even approved.
From there we headed over to the new exhibit rooms. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time since I had a hand in the early development of the interactive exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson and the Boisterous Sea of Liberty.” I had wonderful time sketching out ideas for an exhibit that would allow visitors to explore the complexity and implications of Jefferson’s ideas. Such an exhibit is absolutely essential given our tendency to overlook the fact that the Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment who believed that the power of reason can be harnessed to improve society and government. I worked with the staff at Monticello for close to a year and watched as our ideas took shape. We consulted with historians and examined designs by a number of teams who worked to give us a visual image of the actual exhibit. If I could do it all over again I would major in public history and try to carve out a career in a museum or historic site of some kind. Questions of how to present history to the general public fascinate me.
Upon walking into the exhibit room I immediately recognized the fruits of our labor. It looked much like I imagined it when I last worked on the project. It’s an incredibly attractive exhibit that utilizes various sized panels that cover different stages of Jefferson’s career as well as the major events that comprised his public career. Smaller screens of different heights protrude from the background screens and allow the visitor to explore various aspects of Jefferson’s life. Categories fall [“drip”] along a touch screen panel that the visitor can explore by touching. So, for instance you can click on the Boston Tea Party for more information or a concept having to do with the struggle with Parliament. The screen expands with images and additional text. It’s incredibly user friendly, but I was a bit disappointed with the range of options available to the visitor. Our original idea was to implement a web-style interface that would allow the visitor to click through to any number of screens. For example, clicking on the concept of freedom might take you to John Locke or a panel on the Whig opposition in England, which in turn might take you to something else. The exploration would be continuous. Unfortunately, it looks like you are only given one click before having to choose another selection. At the same time it is difficult to see how a visitor with little understanding of Jefferson and his world is able to piece together a coherent narrative from the screen options. Yes, the screens along the wall do provide an overview of some of the most important events of Jefferson’s life, but it takes an inordinate amount of time and involves stepping back from the individual touch screens. Overall, I think this exhibit has quite a bit going for it and I assume that aspects of it can be reprogrammed; perhaps they can tweak it as more visitors leave feedback.
There are additional exhibit halls, the first focuses primarily on the architecture of Monticello, while the second explores various aspects of life at Monticello as well as Jefferson’s travels. Between the movie and the exhibit hall it is clear that the staff intended to make life at Monticello and the house itself the main focus. There is nothing wrong with this, given that the home itself is as much an attraction as the man who built it, but this minimizes the amount of attention that can be given to Jefferson’s life and accomplishments. Visitors will be hard pressed to find anything about Jefferson’s two terms as President of the United States. Overall, while the exhibits are accessible and engage the visitor I couldn’t help but feel as if Jefferson himself had been lost. If I were to make one recommendation it is the need for a video/exhibit that explores Jefferson’s public career in more detail, especially his presidency.
It is important to keep in mind that the center must both prepare visitors for their tour of the house and provide an overview of the man himself. In short, time is of the essence. Given that the movie is 20 minutes it is easy to imagine a family of four emerging and ready to take the short bus ride to the top of the mountain. Ultimately, visitors wanting a more detailed overview of Jefferson will have to purchase a book from the gift shop. Criticisms aside this is a very attractive and well thought out visitor center that is long overdue. I couldn’t be more pleased to have played a small role in this project.