On two very different, yet equally meaningful, ways to use a historic site.
James Monroe’s longtime home, Ash Lawn-Highland, sits just down the hill from Thomas Jefferson’s much more famous Monticello, and it’s fair to say that Monroe’s home will forever be in that shadow of that most prominent Charlottesville, Virginia, and American landmark. The relationship between the two houses and sites, much like that between the two Founding Fathers and Presidents (and their neighbor James Madison), is certainly an interesting one, and could lead to plenty of American Studies analyses in its own right; but I believe that we owe it to Monroe and his home not to analyze them solely in that light. Moreover, having had the opportunity to spend two high school summers working at Ash Lawn-Highland, I came away particularly interested in the relationship between two quite distinct elements of the site.
The first, and far more traditional, is the site’s recreation of Monroe’s home and era, its role as an educational and performative historic site. There are a couple of interestingly unique components to that role, to be sure: Monroe, an alumnus of the College of William and Mary, left his house to that institution, and so its educational connections are long-term and multi-layered; and the site is a working farm, making its recreations not just performative but in many ways quite productive as well. Yet despite those unique qualities, Ash Lawn-Highland’s identity as a historic site parallels it very fully to other similar sites, from Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier to America’s many other historic houses. Such sites, as we discussed at length in this spring’s NEASA Colloquium, have their strengths and weaknesses, their opportunities and limitations in how they connect audiences to the past; they are in any case an invaluable part of our national heritage, and Ash Lawn-Highland is certainly a representative and interesting example of the type.
But every summer for many decades, Ash Lawn-Highland has featured a very different event: the Opera Festival (known, when I worked for two summers in the ticket and box office, as the Summer Music Festival). While some of the shows perfomed in the Festival are period pieces from the era of Monroe’s life, many are not—each summer includes at least one 20th century musical, for example; and many of the operas that have been performed over the years are likewise outside of the context of Monroe’s era. Yet what struck me about the festival, which for most of its run saw the shows performed on the site’s grounds (they have apparently moved in recent years to a different Charlottesville theater), was precisely what it contributed to the experience of Ash Lawn-Highland: a new perspective on the home, in every sense; a chance to sit behind the main house on a summer evening, to see it in a different light (literally and figuratively), to have an experience that felt not at all disconnected from the goals and identities of America’s founders and of the educational, historical, and cultural legacies of their lives and era and purposes of the sites that remember them. There are many ways to connect to a figure like Monroe, and the world of which he was and is a part; in the Festival, Ash Lawn-Highland highlighted precisely the variety and power of those different approaches.
Next Cville story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Hometown stories you’d share?
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