The Mast-Head: Icons and Personages

It is tricky to tease out a lesson for the custodians of East Hampton’s historical sites

A bald eagle was circling not far above the cupola on George Washington’s Mount Vernon when we visited this week. From the driveway at the end of the house tour, a sharp call could be heard, something like an osprey’s. It was a cold, early spring day, toward closing time, and most of the guests were ready to move on. A federal security guard standing by a wrought-iron stanchion did not look up. Nor did anyone else, as the national bird wheeled around several times and headed down river, still calling.

Tens of thousands of people go to see the Washington estate every year. On Saturday alone, the day of the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence rally in the capital, about 7,000 visitors came through, a staff member said.

It is tricky to tease out a lesson for the custodians of East Hampton’s historical sites. Yes, there may be an appetite here for interpretations of the past, but on the other hand, Mount Vernon is a pilgrimage, almost a must-see for Americans.

Because George Washington is as important an icon as an icon can be, the numbers at Mount Vernon should not be surprising, but the enthusiasm is worth noting. The line to get into the house itself was about 20 minutes long that afternoon. In a feat of remarkable logistics, groups of 20 or 30 people were led through by costumed guides, with time enough for us to stop and peer at the bed in which the man himself had died. To be sure, a no-photography rule helped move the line along; the line at the George and Martha Washington tomb down the hill was much slower.

Context is a la carte at Mount Vernon. There are a few pleasantly distracting signs around the grounds, and visitors can take or leave the good, small museum there as they like. Everyone pretty much knows the story already.

I would certainly like to see a bit more interest in our own historical offerings around East Hampton. It is hard to imagine a Thomas Moran impersonator, for example, at the painter’s restored Main Street house and studio, but it would find an audience. Besides, I’d like to take a turn at it. Could be fun.