Bastille Key at Mt. Vernon

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Bastille Key at Mt. Vernon, courtesy of Mt. Vernon Ladies Association

The Bastille Key, the cast iron key to the main prison in France, was given to Marquis de Lafayette following the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Lafayette, at the time, was acting as a commander of a local protection force aimed at keeping the peace in France. He passed on the Bastille Key to George Washington in 1790. Marquis de Lafayette, of course, was quite instrumental in the American Revolution and held similar ideals as Washington and other Founding Fathers.

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Storming of the Bastille, courtesy of Encyclopedia Brittanica

This object is important to George Washington and the American Revolution in general because it represented the ability of a people to overthrow injustice. The Bastille, prior to the Storming, was seen as a symbol of aristocratic power. This changed when citizens of France attacked the Bastille, the local prison and armory. As such, it is remembered as one of the most important acts of the French Revolution. Such obvious parallels can be drawn between the Storming of the Bastille and American Revolution era events like the Boston Tea Party. The Washington family recognized the power of this object and it remained in the Mansion for several generations following Martha Washington’s death. It was only of a few furnishings to remain in their original place in the home.

Although technically a testament to French events, the Bastille key remains a symbol for the larger themes of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These themes are instrumental to American society and surely make the case for keeping the Key on display at Mt. Vernon.

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NMAAHC- What I’ve Been Waiting For!

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When Phyllis asked which museum we were most excited to explore, I knew that my answer was the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH). I’ve heard such great reviews from those lucky enough to get their hands on the museum’s coveted tickets. As we waited outside, the museum didn’t appear to be very large. It wasn’t until we went inside, huddled in the elevator, and began ascending into the history galleries that I grasped the true depth of the museum.

I was so glad that we were able to enter the museum early- moving freely through the intimate history galleries was really important to me. It allowed me to move at my own pace, ensuring that I could see all the objects that were important to me.

My largest takeaway from the museum was how our institutions can ultimately shape our world. The objects selections that curators make and how information about those objects is presented to the public can make for a wide range of institutional biases. Many museums, especially in DC, are focused on the founding fathers. DC landmarks and attitudes glorify our founding fathers and their ideals, but NMAACH makes an important distinction: our fight for independence was glorious, but hypocritical, since our country concurrently denied that same freedom to slaves.

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One of the most striking images in the museum, for me, is pictured above. The words of the Declaration of Independence are hung on for the wall for all to see. Below it, the struggles and accomplishments of enslaved people are discussed. This is truly the “Paradox of Liberty,” as evident in the museum’s exhibit text. While our textbooks glorify men like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, African-Americans are often pushed to the perimeter. For decades, the American experience and our country’s history textbooks are informed by the accomplishments of white men. NMAACH fills in the blanks, highlighting figures that sacrificed just as much (if not more) than our early presidents.

My favorite object in the entire museum was a book from Phyllis Wheatley, an African-American poet that wrote during the American Revolution. The 18th century is one of my favorite time periods to study and I believe Phyllis Wheatley to be a trailblazer. Many slaves, let alone female slaves, could not read or possess the ability to become a published author. She felt that her voice needed to be heard and her story wasn’t being told by 18th-century American society.

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2014.273.8, The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of M. Denise Dennis, in honor of the Dennis Family.

The visit to NMAACH drove home for me the responsibility that museums have to the public. Our museums have historically been colored by a white, European view of thinking. While beautiful and part of our unique story, this viewpoint should not be all-encompassing. It is important to document our country’s struggles, no matter how painful or uncomfortable, to ensure that our American story can be documented as fully as possible.