FALL/WINTER 2019 - The Washingtons at Home: Using Seasonal Programming to Tell New Stories (Elizabeth Keaney)

15 Jan 2019 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

 The Washingtons at Home: 
 Using Seasonal Programs to Tell New Stories 

By Elizabeth Keaney

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s iconic home on the banks of the Potomac, has welcomed over 85 million visitors since opening to the public in 1860. During the spring season it is not unusual for daily attendance to reach more than 8,000. Most of these guests are students who come to Mount Vernon in order to learn about the Washingtons and others that lived and worked on the estate. Though the Mansion is the crown jewel of the estate, Mount Vernon encourages guests to explore the entire property including the Pioneer Farm, Education Center, and Museum.

To implement new strategic initiatives, the Visitor Engagement division has launched interpretive programs to activate spaces across the estate. One such program, Summer Solstice, 1769, was part of a larger expansion of character interpretation which highlights George and Martha Washington in the years before the Revolutionary War. The majority of guests who visit Mount Vernon associate the Washingtons with the Revolutionary War and the presidency; having a younger George and Martha Washington allows visitors to learn about the early experiences that shaped the lives of the couple who would later be considered Father and Mother of the country. The Character Interpretation department, along with the Director of Interpretation, created a “moveable feast” experience that invited guests to explore overlooked spaces specifically the Lower Garden and the Botanical Garden.

The intended outcomes of the program included illuminating the lives of the Washingtons before they entered a national (and international) stage, and offering activities to visitors in the historic area. At the start of the program guests chose to join Colonel George Washington (portrayed by Brian Hilton) or Mrs. Washington (portrayed by Elizabeth Keaney) as they went about their morning duties. Each character interpreter moved through different sites of the historic area and met in the Botanical Garden where they engaged visitors and answered questions together.

A few successes:

  • The majority of visitors who joined the program from the beginning stayed throughout its entirety.
  • As each character moved about the estate they attracted more guests.
  • Visitors’ questions centered on the theme of the program, which highlighted the daily duties of the Washingtons. This is quite a switch from other programs which focus on the Revolutionary War and presidency.
  • Anticipating that visitors would like to “continue the conversation” an afternoon “audience” with the Washingtons was presented and many attendees of the morning program returned for the afternoon session.

Things to change:

  • The routes were not equal in length, which meant that one group was standing in direct sun for a longer period than we would have liked.
  • Expand the time that characters are engaging visitors together.
  • Improve communications between Character Interpretation and other departments involved in or adjacent to the program to aid in inviting passers-by to the program

Due to the success of the program, a second performance was scheduled for October 28, 2018. Fall Harvest with the Washingtons follows a similar format with the above changes made. By thinking creatively about interpretive holiday programming, Mount Vernon moved forward with the goal of activating the historic area with immersive experiences.   

This article can be found in Fall/Winter 2019 - "Holiday Programming (Whether You Like it or Not)" (Volume 29, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.


Elizabeth Keaney is a Character Interpreter at George Washington’s Mount where she portrays young Martha Washington. She earned her M.A.T. in Museum Education from The George Washington University and has taught history, art, science, and, language arts in museums since 2001. In 2012, Elizabeth produced the first museum theatre programs at National Museum of Women in the Arts, and is a former board member of ITMAL-Americas. She can be reached at ekeaney@mountvernon.org

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