J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mount Vernon’s Key to Crowd Control

This spring I visited Mount Vernon for the first time in several years. I was impressed with the expansion of the site, with a new research library, museum and education center, and agricultural buildings.

Indeed, our visit to the Washingtons’ mansion was probably the most disappointing part of the excursion. Of course, everyone visiting the site feels a need to go into the mansion, which produces a steady crowd in the entrance porches. We probably spent more time outside the mansion waiting in one line or another than inside.

There were docents in most rooms, each with a very short spiel—about a minute and a half—to repeat with little variation for each knot of visitors. Meaning that we’re supposed to spend only about two minutes in each space.

In the entry hall, mounted on a wall within a glass case, was the large iron key shown above. I recognized it from web images as the key to the Bastille, stormed by the people of Paris on this date in 1789. Lafayette sent that key to George Washington as a tribute for helping to inspiring the French Revolution. It was bigger than I expected.

To my surprise, the docent in that room didn’t mention the key. So I asked in a clear, carrying voice, “Is that the key to the Bastille?”

“Yes, it is,” said the docent, in a tone that struck me as implying:
  • she was fairly certain that I already knew the answer. (Yes, I’m one of those visitors.)
  • she wasn’t planning to elaborate on the key’s history.
  • it was time for us to move on to the next room, thank you.
Mind you, all the Mount Vernon docents were friendly and hard-working. I’ve done shorter stints as a museum interpreter, and I’d get cranky if I had to deliver basically the same speech every three minutes.

When we came out of the mansion, I heard another visitor praise the last docent for managing so many people on a busy day. “Oh, this isn’t busy,” the docent replied. And she was no doubt right. That day wasn’t on a weekend or holiday, and it didn’t offer a special event or particularly nice weather. But there were still plenty of people to move through the house.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

LOL about asking in a "clear, carrying voice". Good for you!

One of my big regrets is not asking where the 'facilities' had been located when touring John Adams' home. The world shall never know.