Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Anne Applebaum on the 'New' Monticello

Anne Applebaum has a great review, in this morning's Post (here), about the new Monticello visitors' center.

Applebaum is a fan. She says that the exhibits and approach are in-keeping with Jefferson's own emphasis on progress -- even if they might be a bit flashy and loud for his taste.

Sometimes when I go to new-fangled, techno-focused museums, I get annoyed that the curators don't let people just look at things (and perhaps read simple write-ups) -- and that be enough. But, Applebaum makes a convincing case in this article for why the new center at Monticello, with its technological updates, "works."

Evidently there's a "hands-on" recreation of his copying machine. Seeing as that was always my favorite of his trinkets, I would probably have loved to have gotten to play with one myself after seeing it in the house.

Here are some excerpts from Applebaum:

It makes for a different experience from the one I remember ... This is not unique to Monticello -- Mozart's house in Vienna has undergone a similar transformation -- but it is particularly striking at the home of our third president. The piety that once surrounded all relics of all Founding Fathers has given way to galleries where adults can press buttons to read Jefferson's quotations and then see the Venezuelan Declaration of Independence that those quotes inspired ...

Some people won't like it, and I understand their skepticism, at least in theory. The words "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" are part of our national DNA: Do we really need to reread that famous preamble on a screen, or hold the polygraph to understand how it works? Actually, we do. Monticello's longtime curator, Susan Stein, reckons that many Americans who visit the house don't know Jefferson's words, let alone the way they have echoed around the world. Besides, as an Easter weekend activity, Monticello now has a lot of competition ... Every generation rewrites its history books, so why shouldn't they redesign museums, too?

I won't say "Jefferson would love it" because, given his love of rural peace and quiet, I suspect he wouldn't. Still, it seems appropriate -- and rather a relief in these gloomy times -- to report on the successful modernization of a place that was, after all, built as a monument to Progress. Jefferson's ideas have kept up with the times; it's great that his house has, too.

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