Synthesizing Materiality and Idealism in a Quest for Patriotic Philanthropy
Creative Contemplation of the Past as a Catalyst for the Future
In observing historical and cultural heritage agencies for the Jefferson Legacy Foundation, several questions arose. How is it possible to contemplate the past as a means of opening creative vistas for the present and future?
The American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Vermont Historical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia are all institutions where the past is venerated and collected in print and in artifacts as well in visual resources. How do these repositories go beyond self-absorption towards inviting genuine engagement that goes beyond an appeal “to come and make something wonderful with what we have managed to accumulate, “or perhaps more cynically” to come and find a place of worship amidst our treasure trove?” The American Philosophical Society, while making civil overtures to the interested public, is almost frightfully eminent. The McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture are both exclusively academic in their focus. At these enclaves for “early Americanists,” scholars must be willing to subject themselves to arduous graduate disciplines while deriving support from penurious stipends. Do such processes reward students of independent means and self-abnegating, egoistic specialists? How do we go from window-dressing in heritage agencies to contexts promoting healthy social responsibility and creative sensibility?
In recent decades, new types of cultural components comprise a burgeoning generation of Presidential heritage sites at Monticello, Mount Vernon and Montpelier. Besides exacting physical restorations for the homes of slave-holding Founders, there are also research campuses consisting of libraries and study centers as well as faithful recreations of plantation structures to further understanding of the complex roles for all members of these domestic communities. David M. Rubenstein, a major contributor to the endeavors at all three sites, refers to himself as a “patriotic philanthropist.” By rounding out the picture of the lives of slaves, women, children and free workers, the ideals set forth by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison can now be more clearly envisioned to include those formerly disenfranchised. With preservation efforts at Poplar Forest advancing to new levels of attainment, Jefferson’s idyll of retirement manifests itself more completely for generations now down-sizing in the current day. In addition, a formidable context of think tanks is now developing around these Virginia heritage sites with a clear axis to the nation’s capital. The Presidential Precinct-a partnership between the University of Virginia, Morven, Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland, the College of William and Mary, and Montpelier- is an exciting new collaboration focused on problem solving, with ultimate aims of developing and advancing democracy around the world. The Presidential Precinct has hosted emerging world leaders from over 25 countries (including the Middle East and Africa) in retreat settings to engage in strategic dialogues about fostering democracy and civil society at home and in international relations.
Such endeavors represent maturity in aligning preservation, heritage, and founding ideals to create channels for life to flourish in our nation and on our planet. Perhaps these are indications that the United States of America has survived a vulnerable childhood and is finally emerging from a fitful adolescence to come into its flower of adulthood. It is with great relief that our past is now becoming our prelude.
Respectfully submitted-- Brenda LaClair 7/28/15