History: November 2007 Archives

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley


In Winchester, on the land of the historic Glen Burnie estate, is one of the finest small museums I've ever had an opportunity to appreciate it. This is one of those small places with an obvious deep love of their topic, run by people dedicated to it.

The Museum of the Shenandoah valley is relatively small, having a single floor of exhibit space with additional space for meetings, a library, a small gift shop, and an unusually fine cafe that specializes in a variety of tea and scones. with a couple of offerings for actual meals.

The exhibit floor has five major divisions. One part of it is dedicated to the antiques and collectibles assembled by the most recent owners of the Glen Burnie house. These run from paintings, statues and furniture to quilts small textiles and handicrafts.

Adjacent to what might be termed the "fine art" wing is a superb collection of textiles (quilts) artifacts, furniture and items that breath life into the the frontier life and rural life of the Shenandoah valley. There are antiques from the local area crafted by local artisans or owned by local families for a long period of time.

A third area attempts to chronicle, a a small space some of the events of the history of the Shendoah valley and some of the culture of the area. This space is remarkably successful considering its compressed nature. The history stems from the ancient Native American peoples thought to the early nineteenth century touching upon such subjects as distilleries, the humble abode, and the nature and purpose of cow-bells. What's really nice is that this area is highly interactive with computer games for the kids and a number of videos. In addition there is a "cowbell" song that most visitors are reluctant to pursue because it makes such noise--but the Irrepressible with whom I travel eschews these mere mortal concerns.

The fourth area is dedicated to changing exhibits. In the case of our visit, it was dedicated to the photography of a person who might well be called the Ansel Adams of the Shenandoah--Hullihen Williams Moore. Beautiful black and white photographs of the national park really demonstrate the art of photography.

Finally, there is a small gallery of miniatures, and for those who like doll-house like things and miniature furniture and such, these are a treasure. Personally, I don't find these nearly as interesting as the female visitors who were accompanying me--as so we early parted ways with them spending some significant time in the miniature gallery and tea-shop and me visiting much of the rest of the museum.

Your museum visit starts with a context-setting film in a room built from recovered timbers of a 19th century barn. The docents and guides are extremely helpful, well-informed, and a real delight to talk with.

Right next door is the historic Glen Burnie house and gardens--also worth your time if you haven't visited them. This trip we did not take them in, wanting to spend some time instead really observing what the museum had to offer. But I've been through both before and it was among the more interesting tours of a house I've had the opportunity to participate in.

So, if you live in the area and you're looking for a day trip--you might consider a trip out to the Museum of the Shenandoah valley and Glen Burnie house and Gardens. It would reward your investment in time and money. One suggestion for the dedication of a Patsy Cline museum was that the people who ran this museum might also run the Patsy Cline when it was built and dedicated. I could think of no more felicitous decision. The work of the curators and staff in this small museum is far above and beyond what one might find in many more well-known institutions. The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley has much to be proud of.

(Oh, and the day we were there, the lawn beneath one large tree was covered with what looked (from a distance) like green apples and up-close looked like Osage oranges. They were, in fact, the commodious seed-pod coverings of black walnuts. What a wonderful autumnal welcome!)

For official site information--see here.

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Autumn at Mount Vernon


It had been some time since last I visited Mount Vernon. During my recent trip back to visit my wife's family, we made an excursion over to see the newly updated Mount Vernon Visitor's complex.

A while back, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association had spent a good deal of time and effort updating the shops that flanked the entrance to the estate. They did this while retaining the Colonial feel of the Mount Vernon Inn and created a pleasant mix of the modern and the historical.

Since that time, they have spent a great deal of time and effort building a magnificent new annex and entrance to the estate. Entering one is exposed to a wonderful statue of the Washington Family--George, Martha, Martha Custis, and John Parke Custis (Martha's daughter and son by a previous marriage). (I must admit these last two identifications are speculative because in later life the couple raised at least one, and I think two grandchildren.)


In this wing one can watch a brief film that traces some of the high points in the life of George Washington--Fort Necessity, the Death of General Braddock, etc.

What is most wonderful of all about this, is that the new wing was build without any obvious intrusion upon the estate itself. What was once a lengthy gravel road walk is now an entrance through the visitor's center and from the grounds the center is not visible.

In addition to the new visitor's center, the estate has added two small buildings that represent the living conditions of the slave workers on the plantation. Over time awareness and acknowledgment of Slave life at Mount Vernon has increased and so has the willingness to own up to this problematic situation.

One final and truly magnificent addition to the grounds is a small museum complex that features something like 12-15 audio-visual presentations of different lengths on different aspects of George Washington's life and life at Mount Vernon. Among these are four short clips about slavery, a short clip about George Washington and Religion. As short film about the relationship of George and Martha Washington, some information about George Washington's Spy network, and a nicely realized account of George Washington as military leader, from the debacle of Fort Necessity, to the triumph at Yorktown that secured for us our initial independence.

Along with these presentations there are stunning forensic recreations of George Washington at various periods of his life for which there is scant extant documentation of appearance, etc; his "false teeth", which are, in fact, real teeth secured in a metal plate that looks like a truly arcane torture device, and various artifacts both from Mount Vernon and from the time period.

In addition to the permanent exhibit, there is an exhibit hall for rotating exhibitions.

In all, a stunning change from previous visits, and a welcome one. All of this was done and the price of entry was essential the same as it was some five or six years ago, the last time I went to the estate. It is one of the finest small museums you are ever likely to see. What is truly notable in it is the attempt to be as impartial as being part of MVLA could possibly allow, including some clips and moments in movies that actually levy some criticism of George Washington as general and as slave-holder.

What the complex now does is finely balance the true veneration, devotion, and respect always exhibited by MVLA with the (sometimes) unpleasant historical facts to create an all-round picture of the life of George Washington that only embues more respect and appreciation in the visitor.

One last note, MVLA has added a round of historical personalities who show up on the grounds. I was able to visit with Martha Washington and with the chief of George Washington's spy organization for about half an hour. Each gives a short presentation and then engages in conversation with the audience in character and in time. Thus, they can't answer question about events after 1799, the death of Mr. Washington.

If you're in the area, or you plan to visit the area, you really need to stop by the new complex. It is fascinating, detailed, and multifaceted. With the house, the grounds, and the museum, you have the equivalent of a theme park, with a great deal more grit, gusto, hard and fast reality, and in some ways entertainment. (And this you're hearing from someone who truly enjoys what Disney has to offer us.)

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the History category from November 2007.

History: March 2007 is the previous archive.

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