In 1858, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association took over George Washingtons estate, securing its future existence as the inceptive presidents museum. The Ladies function has changed little since then, and Carol Borchert Cadou, the estates new Associate Director and Director of Collections, carries on the tradition with a broader, stylistic emphasis.
Yes, in speaking with Cadou, the word style is somehow spoken in the same breath as George Washington more than once. As Cadou points out one of Washingtons shoe buckles (circa 1797), made of topaz, gilded silver, gleaming gold foil and steel, his style is evident, and its meaning extracted.
He actually had gems on his shoes, Cadou said. Were trying to give people that view from behind-the-curtain.
Formerly Mount Vernons curator, Cadou said traditional museums tend to focus on a collections aesthetics. Her new post has her looking beyond Washingtons tight-lipped portrait that everyone knows too well. Many exhibits in the six new museum galleries are thematic and without barriers, giving viewers the objects context, not just its aesthetics.
We are able to extract some of those key objects, Cadou says. So visitors look at the objects in a way that they can appreciate Washington writing to France, for instance, or trying to secure silver plated wears that were fashionable immediately after the revolution. For me, the most intriguing objects are those that Washington paid so much attention to.
A land surveyor in his early life, Washington was always tied to the land, making Mount Vernon his veritable autobiography. According to Cadou, about 10 years ago, the Ladies Association decided to broaden their mission beyond the Mansion to include educating the public about George Washington and to make sure that his examples of leadership and character remained in the nations consciousness.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies Washingtons character better than one of Cadous favorite pieces (and apparently one of Washingtons), a terrestrial floor globe (1789-1790) that he ordered from England at time when globes were sold in pairs, terrestrial and celestial. The globe evidences his personality, Cadou says.
Hes really grounded, she said, speaking as if hes an old friend. Hes right here in reality. Hes not looking up at the stars. I think thats very telling: You could imagine him as president, looking at the globe, thinking about a potential conflict between France and England, thinking, I think its fine if Americans just leave themselves out of these discussions.
This caricature of Washington is something Cadou seeks to extrapolate from the estates approximately 40,000 antiquities and ephemera.
Cadou also seeks Mount Vernons solidification as the premier scholarly resource for everything Washington. Mount Vernons library, of which Cadou now leads, is one of the foremost Washington resources, but not enough people are aware, she says. She imagines a legacy like that of the Truman and Reagan libraries, and says a new library could be in the estates future. Integrating technology with the library and the estates collections are also on her docket.
Says Cadou, As we think strategically down the road, 10 yrs from now, we want people whether youre a scholar in the field or an eighth grader writing a term paper to say, Mount Vernon is where I need to go to understand George Washington.