Tuesday, February 10, 2015

7 Questions with Zerah Jakub, Manager of Educational Resources and Outreach at Mount Vernon

Zerah Jakub is the Manager of Educational Resources and Outreach at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. She earned her M.A. in Museum Studies with a focus on Museum Education and Technology from The Johns Hopkins University and her B.A. in History and American Studies from Boston University. She spent six years working at museums in Boston before moving to Virginia to work at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in 2012. Currently she manages the digital presence of the Education Department at Mount Vernon and is working on updating and creating new classroom resources about George Washington. She is also the voice behind @GWBooks on Twitter and both the Fred W. Smith National Library and Mount Vernon for Teachers Facebook pages.

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

I honestly can’t remember exactly when I became hooked on history. Each year my three older brothers and I went on a summer adventure with our parents that always incorporated two things: historic sites and roller coasters. My parents are both teachers so educational experiences were always a focus on our annual summer vacations.

When I was in lower elementary school I received Molly, my first AmericanGirl® doll, at Christmas and devoured the books that came with her. My love of history just kept growing as each Christmas I received another doll and another glimpse into the past.

By the end of the fifth grade I knew that I wanted to study history. I remember being told on the last day of school that new textbooks were being ordered for the following year and we were welcome to take our history text if we wanted. I’m pretty sure I’m the only kid who took my teacher up on the offer, and I still have the book today. I walked home that day, showed the book to my mother, and declared that I would be attending college to study history.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

History has completely taken over my personal life: I’m constantly buying new bookshelves to house my growing library; my house is decorated with historic maps and prints; I have a growing collection of pewter plates with historic scenes; and my friends refuse to travel with me because I tend to show up at the airport with a well-researched list of historic places to visit.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

History is a very personal thing to me. I become incredibly offended when I hear people say “history is boring” because usually they are not referring to the true study of history, but to the memorization of dates. My decision to go into museum education rather than a more traditional classroom setting was in part to change the minds of those who think they hate history. The informal educational setting of the museum can allow for history haters to find a personal connection to the past through the examination of objects, documents, letters, movies, music, oral histories, etc. I know I’ve done my job well when I see the eyes of someone who claims to hate history start to light up when they’ve found that personal connection with the past.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?

Not only does the study of history provide insight into the past that can help with understanding the present, it also provides those who study it with a valuable skill set that is transferable to other disciplines. Historical analysis, the ability to recognize multiple viewpoints, written and oral communication, and creativity are just some of the skills that history can teach.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

I absolutely love American History in the years between the French and Indian War and the outbreak of the American Revolution – roughly 1763 to 1776. You can see the frustrations of the American colonists growing as each year passes into the next and you can follow along as they attempt to organize themselves into factions against the British crown and Parliament. This period also lends itself to a reflection on the past as many of the issues had their beginnings during the English Civil Wars and in their immediate aftermath.

6. What does Mount Vernon tell us about George Washington the man and the President?

Mount Vernon, both the mansion and the larger estate, provides many clues and much insight into who George Washington really was. The value he placed on practicality over style is evident in the slightly asymmetrical appearance of the west front of the mansion; his ingenuity can be seen in the 16-sided barn he had built in the 1790s; his foresight can be seen in his adoption of the Oliver Evans system at his gristmill; aspects of his day to day life can be ascertained from artifacts such as ceramics, buckles, animal bones, building materials, and beads found during archaeological excavations of the South Grove Midden (or trashpit)

7. How is the story told at Mount Vernon America’s Story?

The story told at Mount Vernon is about much more than just the life of the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and first President of the United States. It is the story of the American family when seen through the eyes of the children who lived at Mount Vernon during Washington’s lifetime; not only Washington’s step-children Patsy and Jacky, but two of his step-grandchildren, Nellie and Washy, in addition to the numerous nieces, nephews, and family friends, such as the son of the Marquis de Lafayette. It is the story of American innovation through the technological advances Washington made on his farms and at his gristmill that helped ushered in the Industrial Revolution. It is the story of American progress when Washington’s changing views on slavery are examined. It is the story of American ingenuity when Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association raised the funds to purchase and preserve Mount Vernon for the American people. The story of Mount Vernon is America’s story because it has the ability to resonate with Americans on multiple levels.