FORT WORTH -- In many ways, George Washington exists only as fable.
His inspirational leadership that turned the tide of the Revolutionary War and his two terms as the nation's first president have indisputably put him in the near-mythical chapter of U.S. history. Cities, a state and prestigious universities bear his name. His face is on the most common bill found in any American's wallet. But his humanity? That has largely been reduced to some yarn about chopping down a cherry tree.
A new exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, on loan from Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, Va., brings Washington to life as a three-dimensional person -- an ambitious and smart young man who towered over most of his peers and a charismatic military leader who made costly errors early in his life, only to lead the ragtag Continental Army to an improbable victory against the British in 1783 and become arguably the person most responsible for American liberty.
"If you only look at the iconic Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, all you see is a staid, wooden figure," said Carol Cadou, senior curator at Mount Vernon. "What we've tried to do is go beyond that impression of Washington. What you see in this exhibit is the early life of George Washington as a surveyor, an entrepreneur and a veteran of the French and Indian War, that 'action hero' element of his life that many people don't know about."
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The multimillion-dollar exhibit, "Discover the Real George Washington," contains more than 100 artifacts and other objects culled from the collection of the museum at Mount Vernon, 16 miles outside Washington, D.C., the capital that bears his name. Having just left the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the exhibit will make only one stop in Texas -- in Fort Worth.
It opens today and runs through Jan. 22.
Its appearance in Fort Worth is due largely to the friendship between Van Romans, president of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and Jim Rees, director at Mount Vernon.
"I think this exhibit raises the bar for this institution," Romans said.
The Washington exhibit is one of several current and upcoming exhibits that showcase history, which typically don't draw nearly as many visitors as science-related exhibits. The museum will open another exhibit in December from the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum on immigration through the Port of Galveston in the 1800s and early 1900s.
"It was 1995 when we took out the permanent Texas history exhibit, and we've been wanting to bring more science-history balance to the museum since then," said Charlie Walter, vice president of programs. "People love history, and it is something that we have talked to the community and the board about."
The Washington collection is the last exhibit opening for the well-known Walter at the Fort Worth institution, where he has worked since 1986. Walter will leave the museum this month to become director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. The state-run museum is known for its paleontology, which is Walter's background.
"I've been getting calls for years for other opportunities, but this one was a bull's-eye," he said. "The timing was just right for a new challenge," in part, he said, because his children are out of high school.
Captivating the eighth-grader
Cadou said curators at Mount Vernon proposed a traveling exhibit several years ago to get more young people acquainted with Washington, especially those who cannot travel to Virginia. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation underwrote the costs.
The exhibit includes three life-size figures of Washington at different ages, which were made using a forensic investigation into his build and looks; the only surviving complete set of his dentures; numerous paintings, including portraits by Stuart and Rembrandt Peale; surveying equipment he used; presidential table settings; Revolutionary War weapons; and videos that explore, among other things, his conflicted views on slavery.
"In designing the exhibit, we tried to capture the eighth-grade boy," Cadou said. "We thought if we could capture their attention, then we would get everyone younger and older too. We want to attract all audiences."
In connection with the exhibit, the museum will host several lectures with Washington historians and experts. The first will be Thursday with author and retired college professor John Ferling.
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547