In February 2001, Donald W. Reynolds Foundation chairman Fred W. Smith was reading his Wall Street Journal when he learned that the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington was to be sold at auction by the British aristocrat who owned it. Smith moved quickly. Within a matter of days, the Reynolds Foundation reviewed a proposal from the Smithsonian to buy the painting and polled its board. “We knew that we had to act quickly,” recalls Steve Anderson, the foundation’s president since 1998, who conducted much of the discussion by telephone. The vote was unanimous, and just a week after the Journal article was published, Reynolds had committed $20 million to pay for the painting and keep it in public hands, on this side of the Atlantic.
That original grant has led to a massive investment in history education. The foundation added $4 million to help renovate the National Portrait Gallery, where the portrait is now settled. And the foundation added another $6 million to tour the portrait throughout the country so schoolchildren—especially students west of the Mississippi who might not get the chance to visit the Smithsonian—could see it.
Then it capped off its efforts in history education with $15 million—later increased to $24 million—to build the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center on the grounds of Washington’s estate, the largest gift in Mount Vernon’s history. (The foundation has recently added $2.5 million for educational outreach programs headquartered at Mount Vernon.) The 35,000-square-foot museum and education center is tucked underneath a pasture near the entrance of the estate, which allows for unobstructed views from the home across the fields that Washington tended. “When we were there [in October] for the opening,” notes Anderson, who served for 20 years as an architect and helped to design many Donrey properties, “there were sheep grazing on the roof.”
Previous visitors who recall the estate’s cramped museum and exhibit space will be stunned by the new center, which features more than 20 galleries and three movie theaters. After a visit to a new orientation center funded by Ford Motor Company—which features an 18-minute movie about Washington, a scale model of Mount Vernon, a stained-glass mural with scenes from Washington’s life, and bronze statues of the general, his wife, and stepchildren—visitors take the house and grounds tour. Then they walk away from the house, down a flight of stairs lit by a huge glass wall (and past a bust of Donald Reynolds) into the new center, where they are greeted by a concave statue of Washington whose eyes “follow” you as you move across its field. To the right is the museum, which features 500 objects in six permanent galleries as well as exhibition space for temporary exhibits.
James Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon, told the Washington Post in October that the toughest visitor for many museums is the eighth-grade boy, who is determined not to learn and certainly doesn’t think George Washington is cool. Boys of all ages will find plenty to distract them in the center, which features galleries and exhibits—many of them hands-on—on episodes and periods from Washington’s life. The center opens with a CSI-like exhibit showing how forensic scientists used paintings and busts to create three life-like figures of Washington, from various periods of his life, that dot the center. The figures give a good sense of how Washington looked as he aged and are the centerpieces of exhibits showing Washington as a young surveyor, commanding the American army during the Revolution, and taking the oath of office as the first president. (For the latter figure, the sculptors and scientists, noting that Washington’s famous tooth decay had caused disintegration of his jawbones, gave the sculpture’s cheeks the “pinched” look portrayed on the one-dollar bill.)
Other exhibits include a unique look at Washington’s slaves—an honest and candid examination of the institution Washington detested and yet could never escape; a hands-on history exhibit for young children; a map showing every state, city, county, town, and park named for Washington, spread thickly across the country; and a somber gallery recounting Washington’s death and the nation’s mourning for its first president. And of course, the most famous false teeth in history get their own exhibit.
Most impressive, though, is the Revolutionary War Theater, a two-screen cinema recounting the important battles on the road to American independence. The movie ingeniously animates period engravings and battle maps to give viewers a remarkable bird’s eye view of Washington as military tactician. Meanwhile, the seats rumble to the roar of the cannon, fog shrouds the theater to depict the smoke of battle, and soap-bubble snow falls from the ceiling during the crossing of the Delaware, which historians have regarded as the most desperately ambitious and successful action of the war.
All the bells and whistles have a specific aim—to bring Washington to life to a generation that has lost its sense of his greatness. In recent years, the Ladies’ Association that owns and operates Mount Vernon—one of the oldest nonprofit organizations in the country—has been collecting data on public perceptions of George Washington. Drawing from federal testing data such as the results of National Assessment of Educational Progress, as well as its survey data, the Ladies’ Association, Rees has recalled in interviews, became convinced in the 1990s that the public regarded Washington as a remote figure—a great man, perhaps, but also impersonal, grumpy (an image that springs from the pinched Stuart painting featured on the one-dollar bill), and a bit boring. More distressing was the profound public ignorance about Washington, epitomized by Rees’s oft-recounted story of hearing a young visitor to Mount Vernon ask a Washington impersonator what it felt like to fight in the Civil War.
The new museum and education center consciously breaks with the traditional approach to teaching Washington, epitomized by Parson Weems’s apocryphal children’s stories about silver dollars and cherry trees—which ended up making Washington a god-like figure, but perhaps drained his image of personality—for one that puts Washington into context and seeks to answer a basic question: Why did his contemporaries turn, again and again, to Washington when national crises demanded leadership and strength?
Washington was a modest, yet dependable man who possessed great courage and strength, along with a towering physical presence that commanded any field or room he occupied. The three life-like figures give every visitor a sense of that presence. And that combination of modesty and dependability is brilliantly conveyed in an exhibit that alternates between showing Washington in royal vestments and period civilian garb, accompanied by a description of how Washington could very well have made himself king if he wanted to but opted instead to preserve the republic for which he and many others were fighting. An impressive theater-in-the-round presentation, led by such luminaries as David McCullough and Colin Powell, expounds upon the importance of Washington in voluntarily laying down his military and, later, his presidential powers, setting a strong example for those inclined to put their own ambitions ahead of the good of their country.
The center also vividly portrays the unifying effect Washington’s humble service had on the country. In a section on the Constitutional Convention, one sees a map of the original 13 states, alternating with a superimposed image of Washington. As president of the Convention, his very presence helped various factions come to agreement on the new Constitution, particularly the section that created a chief executive, which the delegates expected Washington to be. And in a video geared toward modern-day Americans, a montage of senators reads Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he warned against the dangers of partisanship and presented a cautious, yet hopeful view that Americans would continually work together to preserve the freedoms for which they had fought so long and hard.
Planning and executing this effort to make Washington relevant again, and reconfirm his status as “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” has fallen to Rees, who has defended the new center against charges that it has dumbed down the general. “[H]e was the man everyone wanted to sit next to at dinner,” Rees recently told Insight magazine. “He was the one who walked into a room and every head turned. Time and again in the 18th century, when there was a critical and important job to be done, the other Founding Fathers turned to Washington.” Putting Washington in context and understanding him as a surveyor, soldier, and politician, Rees believes, does not obscure but helps to answer the question of why Washington was truly, as one biographer has dubbed him, “the indispensable man.”
Sunsetting and Leverage
Funded by the magnate of Donrey Media Group, a chain of newspaper and media properties, the Reynolds Foundation has focused its national grants program on cardiovascular clinic research, aging, and journalism, with a three-state regional grants program in capital grants. Nothing about history there.
So how did a foundation that had never given an historical education grant get so involved, and so quickly, in the effort to bring Washington alive to a new generation of Americans? Anderson credits the 50-year sunsetting provision the board instituted shortly after the donor’s death, which directs the foundation to spend down by 2044. According to Anderson, the provision was designed to keep the foundation true to the beliefs and values of the donor—especially important in a situation where the donor left no specific instructions and the board (which originally included three of Reynolds’s business associates, including long-time friend and colleague Smith) has to extrapolate from the little it knows of the donor’s intent. But one unexpected benefit of spending down has been the ability to make large grants as needs arise. “[Sunsetting has] worked very well for us,” reports Anderson. “It gives us the flexibility to react quickly when we need to.”
Though the foray into history education has been the most high-profile venture for Reynolds, it’s hardly the only interest the foundation has—and generally speaking, when it gets interested in an area, it makes investments guaranteed to make a difference. The foundation has given more than $157 million over the past decade to build and support a network of cardiovascular research centers at Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Stanford, Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Since 1996, upwards of $137 million has gone to geriatric medicine training programs at universities and medical schools across the country, in an effort to train a new generation of doctors up to the task of caring for a rapidly aging population. And building on Reynolds’s own interest in journalism (he received a monthly $22 scholarship to attend the University of Missouri and was a generous donor to the journalism program at the University of Nevada-Reno), the foundation has given to journalism programs across the country, to train future journalists and provide additional education to practicing journalists. The foundation also supports smaller nonprofits with capital grants in three of the states in which Donrey held substantial media properties: Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Nevada.
Anderson suspects that these giving areas will remain the foundation’s focus as it seeks to divest itself of its $1.1 billion corpus in the next 38 years. Through its giving, the foundation is looking “to support programs that have an impact. . . . All of our grantees have proven track records, and we look to help them expand,” says Anderson. Board members approve every grant and place a special emphasis on evaluating program leadership. “Looking at who is leading a program is a critical element for us.”
As for future investments in history education, Anderson thinks the foundation is probably done. “Of course,” he adds, laughing, “I wouldn’t have thought we would ever have gotten started in this area. So who knows?”
Justin Torres is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.