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Mount Vernon: The Story of an American Icon Exhibition Celebrates the People Who Shaped the Home of America’s First President

Mount Vernon today unveils an expansive and inclusive new permanent exhibition, Mount Vernon: The Story of an American Icon. The exhibition traces the rich and complex history of Mount Vernon—not only the celebrated era of George and Martha Washington, but the lesser-known stories of the enslaved community, earlier and later generations of Washingtons, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), which has preserved the property since 1860.  

The exhibition represents the largest reunion of original Mount Vernon objects since the dispersal of George and Martha Washington’s estates in 1802. Visitors can revel in the details of such iconic objects as George Washington’s swiveling office chair, Nelly Custis’s state-of-the-art harpsichord, and the Mansion’s original gilded weathervane. Many objects—Martha Washington’s diamond-studded pocket watch, her ruffled cotton robe, a French porcelain ice cream cooler—are new to Mount Vernon’s collection, treasured by Martha’s descendants for generations before the MVLA acquired them in 2020. Through a landmark loan from Washington and Lee University, the exhibition brings together the original Washington and Custis family portraits. Once displayed together in Mount Vernon’s parlor, these paintings include Charles Willson Peale’s 1772 portrait of a 40-year-old George Washington, the earliest known portrait of him. 

These paintings and decorative arts are paired with never-before-exhibited artifacts from Mount Vernon’s architectural and archaeological collections. Fragments of stone tools from 10,000 years ago, the Mansion’s original cupola spire, a handmade brick with finger impressions of its anonymous maker, a fragment of the piazza’s 19th-century balustrade: these objects reveal the layers of Mount Vernon’s complex history, which includes Native settlements, other Washington family members, enslaved and hired laborers, and the determined women of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association who raised $200,000 to purchase the property in 1860 and still operate the site today.  

“We are thrilled to share this groundbreaking new permanent exhibition with our visitors,” says Douglas Bradburn, PhD, president and chief executive officer of Mount Vernon. “It is an essential experience for people seeking to connect with the founding of our country.” 

“The history of the estate comes to life with this addition to the Mount Vernon museum,” Bradburn said. “We’ve taken the museum to the next level by sharing the full story of Mount Vernon, expanding beyond the history of America’s first president, George Washington. Mount Vernon’s passionate and talented team of experts and historians has assembled a best-of-class exhibition of American history, the fine and decorative arts, and architecture and archaeology.” 

The new exhibition features:  

  • Making Mount Vernon: The Work of Many Hands, which traces the evolution of Mount Vernon’s landscape, from seasonal Native settlements 10,000 years ago, through John Washington’s 1674 land patent, to George Washington’s dramatic overhaul of the house and grounds, a vision carried out by enslaved and hired laborers. 
  • Treasured Possessions: The Material World of Mount Vernon, which showcases a dazzling array of original items owned by George and Martha Washington, used and displayed at Mount Vernon—family portraits, musical instruments, porcelain punch bowls, garnet jewelry, a child’s teething rattle. Visitors learn about the power of objects to reveal the Washingtons’ values, taste, and identities, while also discovering the hidden histories of the enslaved people whose lives were intertwined with the Washingtons. Archaeological artifacts from a slave quarter reveal how members of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community treasured objects of their own. 
  • Saving Mount Vernon: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, which explores the trailblazing work of the nation’s oldest national historic preservation organization. Beginning with MVLA founder Ann Pamela Cunningham’s innovative fundraising campaign in the 1850s, the display showcases the work of the women who meticulously restored and continue today to preserve Mount Vernon.  

Throughout the galleries, visitors “meet” individuals who have shaped Mount Vernon, including Washington and Custis family members, enslaved and hired laborers such as cook Hercules Posey and fieldhand Delia, prominent visitors including presidents and royalty, and some of the nearly 300 MVLA Vice Regents who have served as board members since 1860. Interactive touchscreens enable visitors to engage with the objects and history, providing opportunities to “play” the harpsichord, zoom in on paintings and artifacts, and explore how and why the Mansion’s appearance has changed over time.  

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