Allison Wickens, Vice President for Education at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

On Sept. 2, 2014, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association tapped seasoned museum professional K. Allison Wickens to serve as vice president for education, furthering the education mission of first president’s estate.

Wickens works on behalf of Mount Vernon’s newest facility, the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, to develop, deploy, and evaluate educational resources for teachers, students, and lifelong learners.

“Allison is a dynamic leader with a keen understanding of the changing education landscape,” said Dr. Douglas Bradburn, founding director of the Library. “She understands how critical it is that we dedicate our resources to programs that can make a difference to time-strapped teachers and students.”

Before taking on her new role at Mount Vernon, Wickens led the education and visitor services divisions at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum. During her 12-year tenure at the National Postal Museum, she developed programs for local families, students, teachers, and stamp collectors and enthusiasts, demonstrating her skills in K-12 programming, technology integration, and evaluation.

She also served as the lead educator on the museum’s gallery expansion project and played a guiding role in the development of its new visitor experience, orientation center, and teacher training program. In recognition of her leadership in the field of museum education, Wickens was part of an elite group selected to participate in the 2012 Seminar for Historical Administration’s “Developing History Leaders at SHA” course. 

“My passion for history comes alive when I get to teach and share it with others,” said Wickens. “George Washington’s life and legacy provide wonderful entry points to help students understand the relevance of history in their own lives, especially in the arena of ethics, morality, and leadership.”

Wickens holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Grinnell College in Iowa and a Master of Arts in history from the University of Colorado-Boulder. While at the University of Colorado, she also earned a certificate in museum studies. 

Scroll down for our Q&A with Wickens.

Hope Katz Gibbs: The Fred W. Smith Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate opened in 2013, and we’re excited to talk with Allison Wickens, vice president for education, because she is helping students and adults gain access to historical events, and experience what it’s like to be researcher. Allison, tell us about the Library.

Allison Wickens: When students come to Mount Vernon and explore the estate, they can see history as they can walk in the footsteps that George Washington walked. But when they come to the Library here, they can really dig into the history — not just see it, but research it using the primary sources that we have here in our collection. They can also work with the wonderful experts who explore the themes of the 18th century. This way, they get to know Washington’s world from the inside.

Hope Katz Gibbs: How old are the students who come for a visit?

Allison Wickens: We provide opportunities for high school students to do research here, in a guided fashion, but any student who has a research question about George Washington and the world he lived in is invited to make an appointment to do their research here. I think our youngest scholar so far has been 8 years old.

Hope Katz Gibbs: How do teachers get to come here, what’s the process?

Allison Wickens: We have a lot of special programming for teachers, knowing that if we can help them better understand the world of George Washington, they can do a good job introducing their students to the themes of the 18th century. We also have residential programs for teachers so they can have the opportunity to live on the estate for five days and work directly with experts here in the Library. We also travel around the country to bring the exciting resources from the Library to teachers.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Can students get access to these resources online?

Allison Wickens: That’s exactly what we’re working on right now. Our chief librarian, Mark Santangelo, and I are working closely to develop new models for students to tour the Library; we’re really interested in figuring out a way to make this research accessible to students as they come here. Although there’s no formal way to schedule a tour right now, certainly reach out to us if you want to bring your child or students here to get an inside view of research in American history.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What’s the takeaway that you hope visitors will remember?

Allison Wickens: I think it’s wonderful when students and teachers realize that every historian is looking at the same source material and drawing their own conclusions. As a result, there isn’t just one narrative about a historical event, person, or time period. Rather, each student, in the process of doing their own research, comes up with their own interpretation of the past. It’s powerful to know that you can have your own view of the past, and that you don’t just need to rely on experts and believe everything that they say. When you do come up with your own conclusions based on your exposure to the documents of the day, you can see where things fit and decide whom to agree with — and whom to disagree with. This gives you a lot more ownership over the material.

Click here to learn more about George Washington’s Mount Vernon: mountvernon.org.