Monticello Reborn

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Times change. History changes. Take Monticello: Thomas Jefferson’s storied home and temple to the Republic’s founding has just this year gained a spectacular 42,000-square-foot visitor complex that replaces the small off-site facility. I entered the flagstone courtyard, wondering which of five stunning “pavilions” to enter first, and had a flash of déjà vu.

 Decades ago I was first guided through the house by a lady of gentle breeding, with the silk-soft accent for which the Old Dominion was famous. While her poise and style were memorable, she proved unable to answer questions more difficult than the color of Jefferson’s hair (red) or the number of words in the Declaration of Independence (1,333).

 When I revisited Monticello this summer, our T-shirted guide provided both relevant dates (construction began in 1769) and facts (the plantation comprised 5,000 acres and a workforce of 120 slaves, one of whom, she volunteered, had borne some of Jefferson’s children). Now there was a datum that my guide of yore had never probably even imagined.

Times change, and social norms evolve. History changes because we continue to open new avenues of inquiry, often aided by new research tools. Some of these techniques come from distant disciplines, such as the analysis of DNA, a process barely imagined a generation ago but now able to prove beyond scientific doubt that some of Sally Hemings’s descendants were from a male Jefferson descendant.

 As history recasts itself, so must the institutions that serve it, and Monticello exemplifies that in its sparkling new Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and those five pavilions (a term borrowed from the architecture of another of the great man’s greatest creations, the University of Virginia). The Dominion Welcome Pavilion sells tickets; the Café at Monticello offers food and drink; the Monticello Museum Shop displays an array of goods, including books, above the ordinary run.

 A fourth pavilion, the beautifully appointed Robert H. and Clarice Smith Gallery, offers illuminating exhibits that describe Jefferson’s intellectual life: his agricultural researches, his inventions, and his architecture, especially Monticello itself. When the first double-porticoed iteration failed to satisfy his widening sense of Georgian perfection, he tore it down and built the mansion we see today with its surmounting dome.

 Entering the Smith Gallery foyer, one is immersed in the founder’s mind and sensibility, thanks to glittering (but silent) multimedia technology. Key words—“America,” “The Arts,” “Conduct,” “Education,” “Government,” “Knowledge,” “Liberty”—are inlaid in the bluestone floor, and when visitors stand on a word, part of a relevant quotation appears in light at their feet; then the whole quotation moves across the floor and onto a wall. Gimmicky, yes, but compelling, too. Two hundred Jeffersonian statements and ponderings, displayed with his now idiosyncratic spellings and eccentric punctuation, have been painstakingly transcribed and vetted by scholars at Monticello as they pursue, catalogue, and curate documents from his years of retirement (from 1809 until his death on July 4, 1826).

Nearby, “The Boisterous Sea of Liberty” exhibit employs 21 digital screens that display a changing collage of images and words—especially Jefferson’s utterances and writings about the supreme idea of liberty. Experts from MIT’s Media Lab helped design touchscreen panels that enable visitors to interact with Jefferson’s words. “I don’t know that there’s anything like this anywhere,” says Ann Taylor, Executive Vice President. 

 In the fifth pavilion’s Carl and Hunter Smith Education Center children can examine and use tools and gadgets of Jefferson’s day. (The Smiths of the education center and the donors of the Smith Gallery are not related.) Flexible classrooms in the two-story facility enable school groups to engage in classes and discussions. There’s also a mural by the Virginia artist William Woodward, and upstairs a small theater shows an engaging introductory film.

“We are so excited– this is the first visitor center designed specifically for us,” says Taylor. “The old center was off our property, and we didn’t really run it. The new center is the fulfillment of the dreams and plans of the staff and the Board for many years.”

 So it is that Jefferson’s home today, with its bells and whistles, has become more protean, more flexible, and more relevant to our grasp of history—and our view of our manifold selves. And history here, in the presentation and learning of all its subtopics, has become more exciting too.