A visit and evaluation
Feb. 29th, 2008
By Tim Perry
I decided to visit Monticello as one of my museums for EDLF 586 both because of its close proximity and my great interest and admiration of Thomas Jefferson. The web site had a wealth of information including schedules, teacher lessons, plans for visitors, research information and many other items of interest. Their Monticello classroom site has both a kids and teachers section detailing lesson plans and other kid-friendly information of note for visitors and school groups. They even have image galleries and online activities. Both an adult visitor guide and a young people’s visitor guide are available online as well as at the ticket counter upon arrival.
The education department and visitors center is in a building right off of US Interstate 64, but from there you take a winding Thomas Jefferson Highway (53) up the mountain to the entrance. The arch at the top of the hill between Montalto and Monticello is quite striking. Monticello is fairly easy to find, even though the gate sign does not explain that you are entering the “estate” part of the museum grounds.
Parking was abundant, but I was there on February 29th, 2008 at 2:30 p.m. so not many visitors were around. There were a couple of college and high school age groups there in the afternoon. The new visitors center is under construction, so I had to go to the “temporary” structure built next to the garden center to get a ticket–UVA students get in for only $10 instead of the usual adult admission price of $15. The parking lot area houses not only the garden center, but also the Little Mountain Luncheonette for dining during mid-day as well as a variety of vending machines and a restroom. There is also a slave graveyard in the parking area on exhibit. The parking area is not very well marked and has multiple “levels” so it can be a bit confusing to figure out where to go to get information and tickets. I assume that this is due to the construction and that many of the obviously temporary signs will be replaced with better ones in the near future.
From the visitor center, you take a Monticello bus out of the grounds and back across the bridge into the house area. There is a walkway that requires a 3/10 mile climb up the hill, but I opted for the leisurely route. Once you purchase your ticket, you are assigned a time to see the house on a guided tour. The time is clearly printed on your ticket. The bus drops off visitors at the front walkway of Monticello where a friendly and helpful attendant directs visitors to tour the grounds and be back a few minutes prior to their scheduled house visit time.
I walked around the grounds for about 30 minutes while waiting for my time to go inside Monticello. There are many items of interest in the grounds including the museum shop, gardens, mulberry row, and the Jefferson family graveyard
Our house tour group was then directed up to the steps of Monticello where we were met by our docent and tour guide who explained the rules and reasoning for the house tour. This short orientation was done in front of the house on the steps, but I felt that it might have been supplemented by more information prior to reaching that point.
For those with cameras and other technologies are required to turn them off, which is not entirely a detriment. However, it may be a good idea to forewarn visitors that they will be stepping “back” in time and not able to take photographs mostly due to the interference this causes with the quality of the visit from other members of your tour group. Also, some people may need to know that they will be “out of touch” during the hour or so of the tour in case of emergencies.
The docent explains that all visitors must respect the artifacts and reproductions in the house and not to touch any of them. Monticello offers guided tours only and there are many officials around to insure that both visitors and artifacts are well looked-after. All personnel took great pride and care to work with both the visitors and the house. This level of respect and love for their mission enriched the experience for all.
The house is around 98% original due to efforts of the Levy family who bought and preserved the house prior to its purchase by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. It is preserved as it would have looked somewhere between 1809 and 1820 with a few interpretations along the way in terms of furniture and family items. The artifacts inside ranged from the sublime to the extreme as Thomas Jefferson was quite a collector of oddities. His genius shines through all, however, as does his deep sense of love for his newly created American republic. Monticello, in many ways, seems to emulate the man himself and it is quite enlightening to venture through its hallowed halls and imagine life back in Jeffersonian America.
The docent provided a very thorough and interesting account of the rooms and their artifacts and answered all questions with aplomb and sensitivity. She was very well informed and offered various insights and specific details about parts of the house that are not found in most literature. It was quite an enjoyable experience to be led around and shown this house by someone who obviously has such a love for both the structure and the man behind it. The only major issue is that with a group of 20 or so visitors, there just is not enough time to see everything in all of the rooms. I found myself wanting to linger around in the library and see what books had been collected to return to Jefferson’s collection. I wanted to have a closer look at his instruments and ponder on some of his paintings, but I will have to settle for the brief experience of being there for but a few minutes.
The second issue with the tour is that some of the house is not open to the public. Several of the bedrooms are currently used as offices and I wonder why or if there is a plan to change this. The docent indicated that Monticello offers “architectural” tours a few times during the year to see the rest of the house, but these sell out very quickly. I think it would be fascinating to go upstairs and see more of Jefferson’s wonderful structure from a different perspective.
One interesting aspect of the tour is that the dining room, which is currently a blue color, is being researched for repainting. A cross-section of the paint layers is shown in this room to indicate that the original color was a bright yellow! I asked the docent, and she said that sometime soon Monticello planned to repaint this room in a reproduction color similar to the original. I was also struck by how ingenious the conservators are in using the fireplace areas as modern “vents” for the heating/air conditioning system so as to provide virtually no impact on the historic nature of the structure.
Most of the artifacts in the house were not labeled and while this is how it would have been “originally”, it does make for a large number of potential questions for the docent to answer during the tour. I think that there were audio guides available, but none was offered to me when I purchased my ticket, so again, this overlooked aspect of the tour may be addressed to coincide with the opening of the new visitor center this fall.
I also enjoyed visiting the dependencies and “necessaries” on the lower level of Monticello. Such areas as the cellars, warehouses, stables, and kitchen help to provide an excellent overall picture of life in a early 1800’s farm estate. The long underground tunnel that runs the length of the house was recently renovated and provides for some interesting speculation on the daily operations of such a place.
The sundial and pavilions, landscaping and overall impression of the house in relation to the grounds is exceptional.
Overall impressions are quite positive as that the structure is well maintained and loved. The docent staff is careful and caring and the experience can be quite moving for many visitors. The security personnel and bus drivers were also quite well informed and friendly, happily answering questions in great detail. I even witnessed one gift shop attendant run out in the cold to be sure that a particular family got their Monticello brochure back! This was quite above the call of duty and illustrated just how much some of the staff care about the visitors and their experience at Monticello.
I look forward to the opening of the new visitor center and hope that there will be more educational offerings there for visitors. Many teachers may not realize that the educational portion of Monticello is at the “old” visitor center and thus not have access to materials or personnel for lesson planning. I also look forward to the future development of the grounds and other areas such as Mulberry row as re-creations continue in the Jeffersonian image. Overall, it was a very enjoyable experience that I would recommend to anyone interested in Jefferson and his marvelous estate.