Gunston Hall has been on my list of must-visit places for some time, and now I can cross it off my list. I was impressed by their Room Use Study and remain so. They’ve also done some decent work on slavery, and it shows on their website. So my hopes were high. You know where this is going, right? Yup.
Pretty sure the guided tour is dead. Also pretty sure most museums need to look long and hard at the actual execution of their mission. Granted, this was another one of those January R&R visits, when it is entirely likely that the multiple “Out of Order” signs were a mere mid-winter fluke. But day-um, I was underwhelmed.
Granted, this house is older than “mine.” And smaller. And I didn’t ask any questions on the tour because I fear my tone will be far too telling. But there was a small, excited-in-a-good-way child on the tour, and several other adults. When asked by the docent what we were interested in, the group settled on “life.”
We ended up with the incantation of “many famous people have sat in this room.” “Many famous people have touched this stair rail.” I might have heard an audible intake of breath when we were told something was original; my right eyebrow shot up in an expression well known to my friends.
The house is lovely, of course, Georgian balance and all that, and nicely decorated, whether the chinoiserie paper in the dining chamber or the Virginia-Chesapeake Neat and Plain office. But why the default emphasis is on famous people touched this, stepped here, slept here, I do not know. My docents do it, too, sometimes. But what troubles me more is what I came away without: A sense of George Mason and his family.
Most troubling to me, being Of a Certain Age, was the statement that Mason’s second marriage, to Sarah Brent, was “for friendship and companionship.”
George and Sarah sign a marriage agreement several days before they are wed, protecting in a limited way Sarah’s individual property. Under the terms of this contract, Sarah gives ownership of her slaves to her husband for the length of her marriage, but regains possession of them should her husband die and there be no offspring between them. Under these same conditions, Sarah is promised as dower 400 acres of her husband’s land at Dogues Neck.
Over the years, it has been pointed out that the marriage agreement between Sarah and George indicates that their relationship was more business-like and convenient, rather than loving. However, the marriage compact also can be seen as a fair solution between two practical people who want to safeguard their property for future generations — Mason for his children and Sarah for the sons and daughters of her sister Jean in Dumfries. In Sarah’s will of 1794, she indeed does pass on to these children and one of their offspring the slaves she regains upon the death of her husband.
That looks to me like a sensible arrangement between two mature adults. The way that a 50-year-old approaches marriage and relationships in any century will be different. Even in the 18th century, a woman of 50 has an established identity, knowledge of the world, and experience in running a household, if not a business.
To suggest that sensibility excludes or precludes sex is to miss the point of Jane Austen completely, and is ageist in the absence of evidence. In all likelihood, Sarah is peri-menopausal at least and menopausal at most (it varies widely; some 50-year-old women are still fertile, shocking though that may seem). That doesn’t mean she’s asexual, and while George Mason may well have (probably did) take sexual advantage of the women he owned, that doesn’t mean he’s not interested in, and expecting, a sexual relationship with his second wife.
What all of this suggests to me is a reluctance in museums to talk about sex, unless there are children from a marriage, in which case one can just assume the couple were busy in bed and not actually address it…all in all, a weird thing, and one that turns up in my own museum from time to time.
This is not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the tour, the house, or the landscape. But I felt dissatisfied, as if the real meat of the place was not to be found on the tour. Exploring the upstairs on our own was much more fun– I would have liked some object labels up there, and downstairs, too– and had more of an air of exploration and discovery.
And that’s what the guided tour kills: discovering for yourself. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown you-paid-for-it Museum Hack bonding experience. It doesn’t need to be a handout with “How many squirrels can you find?”
Exploring, reading labels, listening, smelling, touching: using our senses to learn about a place, a space, an object, a person, will be engaging enough.
With so much good, deep, content on the website, I know Gunston Hall has the material a great tour and historic house museum is made of. I know, from reading the labels about slavery at the site and reading the text about slavery on the web, that they know more, do more, and understand more about the enslaved people than their permanent exhibitions indicate.