Here's a show with some teeth in it

Conversations

November 11, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,Sun Staff

What's so great about an ugly set of dentures made with a lead base plugged with human teeth and dingy fabrications fashioned from cow teeth and elephant ivory?

1. They belonged to George Washington.

2. Curators at the Mount Vernon homestead never wanted the public to see them there. Until now.

Mount Vernon's director, James Rees, explained the museum's recent decision to make an unusual exception to its toothless policy:

Mount Vernon has had these dentures since 1949, but never set them out until now. What gives?

We've owned the teeth for 52 years and never really felt it was appropriate to show them at Mount Vernon, primarily because George Washington was an incredibly modest man, and it was felt he would not have appreciated us showing his teeth to tens of thousands of people. But our attendance is down significantly since the Sept. 11 tragedy, and we felt we needed to do something very quickly to address the issue. Sometimes desperate situations call for strong and definitive action.

How badly have you been affected by the Sept. 11 events?

Initially attendance dropped to a mere pittance of what it usually is. What really scares us is even in the month of October we've been down 40 percent, and we don't see the end in sight. We also just opened a $13 million addition to our visitor service. Our gift shop is larger than it used to be. We have a wonderful new food court, we added space to our restaurant and we completed a 200-seat auditorium. This all opened about three weeks ago, so it's been frustrating.

Is the museum facing financial danger?

Unlike most [national historic] museums, Mount Vernon does not receive any federal or state funds, so we depend heavily on our gate receipts and sales at the gift shop and restaurants. But we also know this is a great place for people to visit now because Mount Vernon is a place that can renew people's spirits. We see the great hunger for patriotism, and at the same time we know there won't be many other times when there are no lines here or that the tours of the mansion are as thorough and as fulfilling as they are now .

Was it hard to get the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association [which owns and maintains the property] to let you set the teeth out?

No, I wouldn't say it was hard. It was sort of a good, strong discussion. But everybody felt the teeth are a way we can bridge this gap between most young Americans and our nation's greatest hero. People tend to look at Washington as an almost mythical hero, and the teeth, more than anything else, make him seem like a real person.

Why would anybody want to look at a set of presidential dentures?

They are such a strange contraption, it almost hurts to look at. Washington had dental problems from very young age. John Adams explained it saying he tried to crack walnuts with his teeth as a kid, which was not one of the smartest things the father of our country ever did. But it was an issue for years and years and years. He said it caused an "uneasiness in the mouth" that clearly came through in his portraits.

Have the teeth improved business?

They just went on display on Nov. 1, so the word is just getting out that we have them. But we've also enhanced the experience by opening the third floor to visitors. And we have recently displayed a portrait of Washington by Charles Peale Polk, which is on loan from Barbara Streisand.

Those are pretty innovative ideas. Would you have any creative suggestions for other museums around Washington where attendance has sagged? What would you tell the Air and Space Museum, for example?

I love the National Air and Space Museum, but the message might be that you don't have to go into Washington to have a really great experience.

You know, we actually have some Washington dentures right here in Baltimore at the National Museum of Dentistry. They've been on display here for years.

We have been in touch with the dental museum, and they are probably better experts than we are. But I think our set has a great provenance. We bought it from a descendant of Martha Washington. I think ours are the best.

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