Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Backwards in time

It should be no kind of secret to anyone who knows me, reads this blog, or follows me on Facebook that I love many things, but I especially love history. Living as I do in central Virginia, I'm pretty much in the cradle of the beginnings of this country. From the Jamestown colony, to Colonial Williamsburg, to the American Revolution, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the White House, the Civil War, and many, many more of the most significant locations, houses, battlefields, and events of American history exist within a day's or less drive of my house. I've been to many of these places, but a significant amount of time that has passed since I have had a chance to visit many of them again.

It's spring break week here, and with three kids, I like to plan at least one structured activity or day trip for the week. We tend not to travel much, so day trips are perfect. The original plan was to go to Washington, DC, about two hours away, and visit a couple of the Smithsonian museums, a place very dear to my heart. Alas, the fickle spring weather in Virginia wasn't conducive to a fun trip. Instead, we opted for a trip closer to home, to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

TJ's place is situated on over 2,000 acres on the top of a small mountain just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. We opted for the guided tour of the house, but toured the grounds and gardens ourselves, maps in hand. Noah was especially enamored of the map and took great care to make sure he knew where we were, and compared it to the illustrations on the map, at each stop we made. He loved it!

The view is stunning, even on a cloudy, cool, and otherwise dreary day. Our guide told us Jefferson had no outbuildings built at Monticello so he would have a completely unobstructed view from the house.

All the dependencies are built into the terraces under the house -- the kitchen. smokehouse, stables and carriage house, house slaves' quarters, and storage rooms are underneath wings of the house. The vegetable garden is immense and beautiful, as well as the vineyard and berry patch. Behind the house, the west lawn is expansive and bordered with tons of flowers -- tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths now in the early spring. The kids were all over the place, loving the peek into the kitchens and other dependencies, especially those with artifacts like dishes and bottles and sewing tools.

Inside the house, no photography (as with most house museums), so I can't share the wonderful things inside the house. Jefferson truly was a genius, in the layout and decoration of his home. Floor to ceiling windows, alcove beds, and huge skylights in octagonal rooms were my favorite. The details are simple and amazing, even down to the molded friezes over the doorways. His dining room is Mars yellow, a shockingly bright color that makes the room just glow,`and the tea room off to the side, surrounded by windows, is where I would spend all day, if I could. Our excellent guide told us that 60% of the furniture and artifacts in the house actually belonged to Jefferson, including some of his books. Oh! The books! Two shelves of his own personal books, plus hundreds of others that were of the era. Shelves and shelves of books in his library. And all I could think as I walked through the house was, Thomas Jefferson actually lived here, walked here, held these books, slept on this bed, wore these riding boots, sat in this chair....

And his books and papers, things he actually touched, silhouettes of family members that are hanging still on the walls in the South Square Room, it makes me want to see everything they have in the collection. I know because I work in a museum that there is so much more not on view to the public that is held by the Monticello Foundation and in the Thomas Jefferson library. Can you imagine? Ledgers for the farm and plantation, recipes, correspondence, sketches...I could sift through the papers and artifacts for days without getting bored. Our tour guide was really good, and I soaked in all the information he was telling us, and his enthusiasm for the place and the stories, and I just felt so happy. One of my favorite things about working at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is getting to tell people who come on my tours all about the history and the stories behind the works of art. I would love to teach in a house museum, too. I think I love material culture and archival 'stuff' -- papers, photos, other ephemera -- as much or more than I love the artworks. It's the stories about people and how they lived and who they were that fascinate me.

Some days I know I really missed my calling. I should have gone to library school, or gotten the history degree I had planned on. I would love nothing more than for my second career to really be about my passion for preservation and history and the stories of the people who came before us.

I hope I at least pass on some of my interest in history to my kids.

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