George Washington did not impress me when I was a boy.
It’s an embarrassing admission now. But let’s face it, the guy was portrayed as having the personality of shirt cardboard. The distant, dour expression on his portrait in my elementary school always reminded me of my Uncle Chubby, rest his soul.
And the Revolution? That war had a p.r. problem. What kid would pay any attention to a bunch of fellows in funny suits aiming pea-shooters at each other, when TV and the movies were churning out lavish productions about bombers and battleships and heroes from World War II?
Obviously, a crucial element was missing from my education. Namely, education.
The Washington Association of New Jersey is determined that this does not happen to future generations of schoolchildren.
Volunteers are hard at work raising money for the “Discover History Center,” a new interactive exhibit at the Washington’s Headquarters Museum in Morristown.
They promise it will bring colors to the cardboard, adding a new dimension to General Washington while hammering home the stark suffering of his brave troops at Jockey Hollow through 24 snowstorms in 1779-80.
“If they didn’t survive here, they couldn’t have gone on to Yorktown. There would be no country. In the 19th century, all of Europe was amazed at George Washington,” said Eileen Cameron, president of the Washington Association.
If all goes well, the exhibit will be completed by 2015. If all goes really well, the museum will be re-opened by then. As part of the National Park Service, it was closed by the federal shutdown earlier this month.
Some $1.3 million for Discover History has been raised so far, with another $1.7 million to go. The association will forge ahead at the Boxwood Ball, a $300-per-ticket black tie dinner / dance at the Morris County Golf Club in Morris Township on Oct. 12, 2013. John P. Osborne’s evocative paintings of soldiers at Jockey Hollow will decorate the country club, courtesy of the J. M. Stringer Gallery in Bernardsville.
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“This is an organization that everyone should support, because it’s about our heritage,” Karen Kirby, chairperson of the Boxwood Ball, said of the 141-year-old Washington Association.
Plans call for Discover History to fill 2,000 square feet of the museum’s lower level. One of the displays being contemplated is a replica hut from Jockey Hollow that will hit visitors with a blast of frigid air.
The project architect is Steve Feldman Design, a Maryland company with a client list that includes Historic Speedwell in Morristown, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Billy Graham and Red Skelton museums, among others.
Themes planned for the Discovery History Center
1. Morristown: Window on the American Revolution
Introduce the broad overarching impact of what occurred in Morristown during the American Revolution and gives us insight and perspective on the entire war.
2. Why Morristown?Show why Washington selected Morristown for two winter encampments underscoring the strategic value of its geographic location, populace, and diverse landscapes and resources.3. Winter Encampments at Morristown: Why and What
Provide a brief overview of the events of the Revolution preceding and following the winter encampments of 1777 and 1779-1780 and why they were important to Washington’s strategy.
4. George Washington: Commander in Chief during the American Revolution
Introduce Washington in his role as Command in Chief and focus on his leadership and activities in Morristown.
5. Challenges of Building and Sustaining a Standing Army
Show that building and sustaining a standing army was one of George Washington’s and his officers’ greatest challenges.
6. Impact of War on Colonial Citizens
Provide context for the larger story of the war by showing its impact on citizens of Morristown.–Washington Association of NJ
The Washington Association is working with the Morris School District to ensure that the Discover History Center complements its history curriculum, said Susan Johns, an association member.
One goal is more school field trips to the museum and adjacent Ford Mansion, where General Washington was headquartered in 1779-80. Some 1,309 school groups visited in 2009, according to the association website.
By reinforcing classroom teaching “in a fun and hands-on way,” the association hopes to ramp up students’ enthusiasm for Morristown’s Revolutionary past.
Only 13 percent of U.S. students showed a solid grasp of the country’s history in a 2010 national assessment test. Students were tested in seven subject areas and performed worst in history.
“Exhibits will present the dynamics of the Revolutionary Era: complex, chaotic, and exciting. Most importantly, they will convey the fact that the Morristown encampments were a huge success,” states the association website. It continues:
Most Americans tend to think of the winter at Valley Forge as the ultimate test of the army’s resolve but in actuality it was here in Morristown where Washington’s and his troops’ true mettle shone. It was here in Morristown where the mistakes of previous encampments were rectified. It was here in Morristown under George Washington’s watchful eye and direction where the ragtag army under the most adverse conditions built an elaborate, carefully structured, sanitary grid of 1,000 log cabins where they could persevere and live on to continue the war. Its story must be preserved and known.
“It’s for students,” said Eileen Cameron. “Why were Washington and his troops here? Why did they stay here during the worst winter on record, when there was no food?
“A museum like this fills a void that’s missing in the curriculum,” Karen Kirby added. “Washington used to be in every school, way back when.”
The new center also is considered crucial for attracting history lovers of all ages, and for keeping the museum competitive.
The Washington’s Headquarters Museum and Ford Mansion are part of the Morristown National Historical Park, established in 1933 as the first such park in America.
Over the last decade, museum renovations and additions –funded by $5.3 from Congress and by private, corporate and institutional donations — have included three galleries, a new auditorium and a library/research area housing more than 300,000 manuscripts stretching to the 15th century.
Again, from the website:
Educators say history is critical to students learning how to become better citizens and understanding how the country’s political and cultural systems work. George Washington would surely agree. As he said in 1784, “The best means of forming a manly, virtuous and happy people will be in the right education of youth.”
I should have paid closer attention in grade school. Some folks down in the Beltway probably should have, too.