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.
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.
“Lives Bound Together” exhibition at Mt. Vernon
I was really impressed today regarding Mt. Vernon’s interpretation of slavery. I have never been to this museum, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Some historic sites, especially those that glorify Founding Fathers, often shy away from difficult topics like slavery. I was pleasantly surprised to see the “Lives Bound Together” exhibition. Slavery wasn’t just delegated to a small area in an exhibition, but was the main focus of the entire (large) exhibition.
I enjoyed listening to the Curator as she described the thought process behind the exhibition and how certain objects were selected. I particularly felt it was interesting that many of the same objects in the room with the Washington’s dining table were re-purposed from previous permanent exhibitions, but were interpreted differently under the framework of slavery. I also appreciated the choice to humanize the enslaved people that lived at Mt. Vernon. The choice to display their names on the front door, on a banner throughout the exhibit, and with several silhouettes brought slavery out of an abstract concept.
But beyond Mt. Vernon’s interpretation of slavery in the form of exhibitions, I thought they were particularly successful in utilizing character interpreters. The man who represented Christopher Sheels seemed to have such an eloquent way of describing how he interacts with kids and adults to help them better understand how enslaved people lived on the estate. He said that in order to get his message across he needed to tell the truth, with humility, and with grace. It seemed like a great strategy to utilize, even with tough visitors that could be emotional or downright combative.
Overall, I was not expecting Mt. Vernon to have such a handle on the interpretation of slavery. I was pleased to hear that the narrative of slavery was woven into every tour, even those that didn’t specifically focus on the activities of enslaved people. Staff said that they have come a long way in terms of how they discuss slavery and still have room for improvement. From what I can see, Mt. Vernon seems to be on the right track.