Partially built into the base of a mountain and largely surrounded by trees, Monticello's new visitor center blends into the central Virginia landscape.
Invisible from atop the "little mountain" and half underground, the $43 million, 42,000-square-foot complex of five western-cedar pavilions was designed not to compete with or mimic the neoclassical architecture of the main attraction. But it's an integral part of the Monticello experience, giving visitors greater insight into the life and ideals of the nation's third president, details that can't be covered in the half-hour tour of the main house.
Monticello's curators and historians created the exhibits for the multimedia age, including a new introductory film that highlights Jefferson's life and the impact his groundbreaking ideas have made in modern times — illustrated in part with a clip from the January inauguration of President Barack Obama.
The exhibits also reflect an updating of the study of history itself, now more fully including the stories of others in the community, including the more than 100 slaves that helped build Monticello and worked on the plantation, and mentioning that Jefferson may have fathered children with slave Sally Hemings.
The new presentations are the first opportunity to include such detailed information in exhibits, explaining the lives and roles of slaves and free blacks on Jefferson's plantation and identifying many by name with the help of Jefferson's meticulously kept records, head curator Susan Stein said.
The thousands of people who visit Monticello annually now are able to get a more detailed overview of Jefferson through several exhibits.
"Thomas Jefferson and 'the Boisterous Sea of Liberty'" uses a wall of 21 large flat-panel LCD screens to display ideas about political, intellectual and religious freedom as expressed in the Declaration of Independence — and show how they have evolved.
"These ideas are still meaningful, still in play and determine what our society is about," Stein said.
Seven touch-screen displays allow visitors to pull up information about concepts and events, placing Jefferson in the context of the era in which he lived. One portion uses Jefferson's writings to illustrate that while he considered slavery morally wrong, he saw its future abolition "as the work of another generation" rather than something that could be accomplished in his lifetime.
"Making Monticello: Jefferson's 'Essay in Architecture'" showcases the architectural inspirations and the structural evolution of the house, with scale models, reproductions of notebooks, and a list of the workers who built the structure and examples of the tools they used. A computer-generated animation overlays views of the home onto Jefferson's actual drawings.
"Monticello as Experiment: 'To Try All Things'" shows the president's plantation as a laboratory where he used science and technology to improve everyday life. More than 200 artifacts include Jefferson's personal gadgets such as a knife, telescope and compass, as well as items used by slaves, which showed they had lives independent of Jefferson, including evidence of their own separate economic system, which included raising vegetables and chickens and selling them to the women of the Jefferson household.
Slaves also earned tips and gratuities, and spent their money at local stores on items such as cloth, buttons and buckles, as well as Chinese ceramics and tablewares — items now on display. "It shows how porous the system was," said Elizabeth Chew, curator of Monticello's collections.
Aimed at visitors ages 6 through 11, the Discovery Room allows children to write with a "polygraph" machine based on the one in Jefferson's house, try on replicas of 18th-century outfits, build Monticello with blocks and enter a replica of a slave dwelling. Young eyes are also drawn to a replica of a painting in Monticello's parlor that depicts Salome holding the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Monticello also has added an education center for seminars and other learning activities, a dining area with indoor and outdoor seating, and a gift shop. The new complex replaces a ticket booth and a small center built in 1976 several miles down U.S. 20.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.