Washington exhibit explores the good, the bad and the ugly

The National Constitution Center has opened its summer exhibition on George Washington. “Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon” reveals the first president with forensically accurate sculptures and personal artifacts—such as teeth.

Those teeth are monstrous. Washington wore dentures made from animal bone set in a springed metal rack. The dentures look painful at best, and at worst—if you’re the leader of a new nation—embarrassing.

“You get the sense that having dental problems for someone in Washington’s position—people always looking at you, must have been extremely uncomfortable,” said Laura Simo, assistant curator at Historic Mount Vernon, where the traveling exhibition originated. “How can you communicate, eat a regular meal? There’s a wonderful quote here, Washington thanking someone for sending pickled tripe, because it’s a soft food that he can eat.”

The artifacts in the exhibition reveal the president in many aspects of his life, from an ambitious youth, to a general, to the owner of huge tracts of farmland. It includes clothes, cutlery, tools, and lifelike sculptures created through forensic studies of medical, historical, and art history resources.

But the dentures are the surefire crowd-pleasers. For decades the caretakers of Washington’s legacy—the Mount Vernon Ladies Association—were loath to show them publicly. They felt the president’s bad teeth embarrassed his stately image.

In contrast, the Ladies Association has never hidden the fact that the president owned slaves.

“Slavery was legal in Washington’s time,” said Simo. “There’s nothing embarrassing to say that in the same sentence. There’s no reason to be embarrassed by it or to hide it. An open policy—and a truthful policy—is important.”

Running concurrently with the exhibition is a show of contemporary art-quilts depicting the nine slaves Washington kept at the President’s House in Philadelphia.

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