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Guided Torture

Philip Terzian takes a (mandatory) tour

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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One summer morning almost exactly 20 years ago, I drove out to Leesburg, Virginia, to meet a courtly businessman named B. Powell Harrison and discuss the fate of Dodona Manor. Dodona Manor, a plain, early-19th-century Federal-style residence, had been the home of General George C. Marshall: His wife had bought it in 1941 as a retreat from wartime Washington, and the Marshalls had lived there until the general’s death in 1959. 

David Clark

David Clark

In 1994, Marshall’s stepdaughter wanted to sell the place, and Harrison, who had served under Marshall during the war, was worried that it might fall into private hands. I shared his concern. When Franklin Roosevelt was deciding whether to name Marshall to lead the Allied invasion of Europe—he concluded that Marshall was indispensable as chief of staff and gave the command to Marshall’s protégé, Dwight D. Eisenhower—he lamented, “I hate to think that 50 years from now practically nobody will know who George Marshall was.” 

Well, the half-century had passed; and while Marshall was well known to historians, his achievement as “organizer of victory” in World War II was not folklore. Yet the story has a happy ending. Powell Harrison secured funding from the federal government, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and various private sources, and Dodona was bought, restored, filled with family furnishings and personal effects, and converted into the George C. Marshall International Center.

I doubt that the column I wrote at the time accelerated the process, but I had always meant to revisit Dodona Manor and see how it turned out. Not long ago, I paid that visit, and can truthfully answer: just fine—with one glaring exception. You cannot visit Dodona without enduring an interminable, insufferably tedious, and of course mandatory, guided tour. 

I would have been content to spend 15 minutes walking through the house, admiring the artifacts and restoration and surveying the volumes in Marshall’s library. But that would have been contrary to current dogma in museums and historic houses. At Dodona Manor, as at James Madison’s Montpelier 80 miles south in Orange and George Washington’s Mount Vernon 50 miles east near Alexandria, the presumption is that visitors know nothing about the onetime occupants and want to be entertained as well as informed.

Not necessarily. Now, I acknowledge that most visitors to these places may have scattered knowledge, at best, of Madison or Marshall, even Washington; and I freely confess that the tone of most docents—addressing their hostages as if they were very young children—is torture to a know-it-all type like me. But in the bad old days, before interactive exhibits and tour guides dressed in colonial garb, such places would have roped off the rooms for security and posted informative signs along the route. This allowed people to hurry or linger at will; and those with a taste for guided tours could have them.

No more. For the aim of curators is not to present these places as they are to interested visitors, who may draw their own conclusions, but to convey an attitude about them in compliance with museum doctrine. This was driven home to me on a recent (compulsory) tour of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, where the guide informed us that the custodians “choose to believe” that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings—by no means a certainty—and nearly as much time was spent admiring the empty slave quarters as Jefferson’s astonishing residence. 

And of course, with condescension (“Can anybody here tell me when the Declaration of Independence was signed?”) comes a certain leveling instinct. The one space at Monticello where I yearned to spend a few extra minutes—the combination library-bedroom where Jefferson’s books and distinctive furnishings are most in evidence—was swiftly passed through to pay a prolonged visit to the kitchen, the one room in the house Thomas Jefferson might never have entered. 

Alas, Monticello suffers from political correctness, but sometimes, curatorial doctrine verges on the absurd. I visited San Simeon three decades ago and have occasionally wondered whether the official view of its lord of the manor, William Randolph Hearst, has evolved over time. San Simeon is a stupendous folly and an interesting place to visit; but the worshipful guides regarded the contents—mostly second- and third-rate objets d’art from Old Europe—as if they made the place Chartres Cathedral. In the grand dining room we heard of the wondrous feasts where the “high and mighty” communed with Hearst and his friends. At that moment my eye fell on the framed menu from a dinner whose guest of honor was Arthur Lake, the actor who played Dagwood Bumstead in the “Blondie” movies. 

 

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