A Milestone for Monticello: High-tech Vistor Center Set for Debut

04.12.09   By Bryan McKenzie

A single step on topic and the statesman’s words swirl and whirl about the floor, breaking apart only to reunite on the wall in full quote.

A room away, the man’s ideas and ideals are broken down and explained on 14 large flat screens and seven smaller ones, touch-screen “droplets” floating down the lesser displays, waiting for a fingertip’s pressure to reveal facts and side notes.

Thomas Jefferson would love the new visitors center at his old Virginia home.

Monticello officials on Wednesday will unveil the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center, a high-tech and hands-on series of static and computer-driven displays designed to reveal Monticello as a society rather than a home, and Jefferson as a man rather than a revolutionary icon.

“Most people who go through the house tour get to know Jefferson through a sense of place,” said Susan R. Stein, exhibition project director and Monticello’s senior curator. “We’re trying to provide a wider perspective of Jefferson and of life on the property in its entirety. Monticello wasn’t just a home, it was a community.”

Nearly a decade in design, the 42,000-square-foot, $43 million project was nearly three years in the making from the time officials broke ground.

The center includes a ticketing area, cafe, theater, classrooms and offices. It features four exhibitions using computer-generated graphics, artifacts found on site and storyboards to depict the lives of Jefferson, his family and the community of free blacks, slaves and hired tradesmen who lived there.

It also includes a 30-minute film depicting Monticello’s importance to Jefferson, and Jefferson’s importance to the nation and world. To bring the scholarship home, the Griffin Discovery Room provides exhibits, featuring hands-on displays.

Hands-on experience

“When you walk through the house, there are so many things you want to touch, but you’re always told not to. This gives kids and adults a chance to do that,” said Robin Gabriel, director of education and the Griffin’s curator.

“We wanted to create a space that would complement everything in the house. You can lie on Jefferson’s bed, sit in his revolving chair or write on a stylized version of his polygraph.”

Children can get a first-hand view of making nails – a task carried out by children on the grounds – and insight into slave and working life at Monticello.

“We’re able to look in-depth at parts of the plantation, the home and the community that lived here, in ways that we weren’t able to before,” Gabriel said. “When we we’re just doing the house tours, the guides would do their best to include as much information as they could, but you don’t have as much time when you’ve got another tour behind you.”

Throughout the new center, technology abounds. Computer-generated images, graphics, displays and effects were created specifically for the center. Curators said the systems are exclusive to Monticello.

At The Boisterous Sea of Liberty exhibit, the multiple computer screens depict Jefferson’s belief in liberty. They also show how his words and ideals have affected the world over the centuries. At The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson exhibit, just outside the liberty display, a visitor’s foot placed near words inlaid in the floor causes a quote to appear on the floor.

The quote then swims about, to be projected on the wall.

Lasting ideas, impact

“This provides a different contextual perspective and method of content,” Stein said. “We’re trying to help people understand Jefferson’s ideas and how lasting they’ve been and the impact they have, even in the present.”

Stein said the computer-generated graphics and displays were carefully designed.

“We’re trying to use technology to communicate ideas that technology is good at communicating,” she said. “This has been designed specifically for Monticello, and is not in use anywhere else. That’s in keeping with the interest that Jefferson had in technology.”

One-of-a-kind exhibit

“No one else has this,” said Elizabeth Chew, Monticello curator and curator of the Try All Things exhibit. The exhibit includes information on Jefferson’s many forays into science and art, as well as the lives of workers and slaves in the Monticello community.

“We’ve tried to use technology in such a way that it fits in, and isn’t just a case of using technology for technology’s sake,” she said. “Jefferson would love all of this because he was the original techno-geek.”

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