Using Mount Vernon to Teach with Objects
At Mount Vernon, the rooms of the Mansion would say so much less without their furnishings. The bed in which George Washington died brings a solemn respect and raises questions about his height while Martha’s china demonstrates global trade during the 18th century and insight into the lives of those who used it on a daily basis. The artifacts found archaeological research done on the estate’s landscape add depth and breadth to our knowledge of material culture used in the 18th century. Objects can heighten both the emotional and inquisitive responses of students. Through knowledge of their use, they can connect us to the people of the past.
Teaching with Objects Tips:
Physical interaction with historic objects can help students, regardless of grade level, grasp the concept of history in a more personally meaningful way. Reproduction artifacts or low-value historic items can provide opportunities for students to handle objects and make closer observations. For younger students, objects can help build capacity for conceptual thinking. For older students, they can help show that the ideas, people, and events in their lessons left evidence of their existence.
Objects can support both small group and self-directed inquiry activities. Analyzing material culture in digital, print, or physical format can create an even playing field for students with different learning strengths. Stations that utilize multiple objects that collectively create a broader historical context can help students draw their own conclusions and provide differing evidence for debate.
Inquiry of a historic object can be challenging. It is often easier and faster to tell students what an object is and why it is important; however, the process of inquiry on a non-text source, such as an object, will help students learn to look deeper. Begin with concrete questions based in the physical world, then move to the social and functional associations with the object (who used it and how). Continue the inquiry process by asking students about the cultural implications of the object (the why).
Working with digital collections gives students the freedom to pick their own object to analyze. This allows them to take responsibility for an object that raises questions in their own minds. Students should research where the object is from and how it came to be preserved. Asking students to compare and contrast their object with an object of a similar function used today can help create additional connections between the present and the past.
Whenever possible, put historic objects and reproductions into use. Objects can help demonstrate historic processes such as washing clothes or making butter when used with period appropriate tools. Seeing historic objects and reproductions in use can provide a stark contrast to how similar activities are accomplished today.
When the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased Mount Vernon in 1858, three objects owned by George Washington remained in the house that had belonged to George Washington. The Key to the Bastille, a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette during the French Revolution still hangs at Mount Vernon in the location Washington selected after his presidency; the Terrestrial floor globe, commissioned by Washington during his presidency, was an invaluable tool for the leader of the new nation; and the Houdon bust, cast in 1785, was said to be the most accurate likeness of Washington’s face.
A single object from Mount Vernon’s collection can tell multiple stories. In 1796, Martha Washington received a gift of china with a design featuring the original thirteen states. By taking an in-depth look at one piece of this set of china, a saucer for example, students can gain insight into its many uses and interpretations. One interpretation would be from the perspective of Martha Washington, the owner of the saucer. Another interpretation could be from the perspective of a guest of the Washingtons who used the saucer while dining at Mount. A third interpretation would be from the perspective of an enslaved person who was responsible for caring for the saucer before and after the meal. Objects never date from one time; although they are made at a specific time, objects are often used over the course of decades and can have many different owners and uses throughout their lifetime.
Two objects in the Mount Vernon collection can be used to help students analyze George Washington’s physical experiences during his life. The first, Braddock’s sash, is an officer’s sash that was used to carry the wounded General Braddock off the battlefield following the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755. It was subsequently given to George Washington as a gift, and he chose to wear it for his first formal portrait in 1772. In both cases, the sash can help students envision the size and weight of the individuals whose stories it helps to tell. Another object that can be used to make George Washington’s experience real is his dentures. Close observation of the metal and springs used in Washington’s dentures, combined with student knowledge of gum sensitivity, can start an interesting conversation about what it might have felt like to wear these teeth. Layering additional sources, such as portraits and a letter to his dentist can also contribute to deeper student understanding.
Archaeologists completing research-based digs on the grounds of the Mount Vernon estate have recovered many of the objects that make up Mount Vernon’s collection. Some of the most enlightening objects found were discarded and lost in the trash pit, or midden, of the “House for Families.” Many generations of enslaved men, women, and children lived in this dwelling. The items found during this dig have definitive provenances (traceable to their original user) of having been used by enslaved individuals at Mount Vernon. These objects provide great insight into lives that otherwise lack direct primary source records.