A newly announced $10 million donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein is set to fund upgrades, improvements and the creation of an underground museum at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
As Mikaela Lefrak reports for WAMU, the billionaire’s gift will enable officials to replace the memorial’s current museum—“dimly-lit” and “cramped,” the space hasn’t been updated since the 1990s—with a state-of-the-art education center. Per the Washington Post’s Michael Ruane, the donation will also fund a new exhibition space on the memorial’s main level, where tourists mingle in the shadow of a nearly 19-foot-tall bronze statue of the nation’s third president.
The planned museum’s goal is simple, Rubenstein—co-founder of the D.C.-based Carlyle Group and a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents—tells USA Today’s Susan Page: “So when people go, they can actually learn about Jefferson.”
According to a National Park Foundation press release, the revamped museum will highlight new perspectives on Jefferson’s “multi-faceted story,” incorporating tactile and auditory design elements dedicated to ensuring accessibility.
“[The space is] in desperate need of refreshing,” Jeff Reinbold, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks for the National Park Service, which manages the Jefferson Memorial, explains to Lefrak.
He hopes to complete work on the new museum by the memorial’s 80th anniversary in 2023.
“Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, played a central role in the creation of our country,” Rubenstein says in the statement. “Telling the story of his greatness along with his failings will enable visitors to better understand his genius and humanity. I am deeply honored and humbled to have this opportunity to help improve and restore this iconic memorial.”
The underground museum project isn’t the only construction campaign underway at the D.C. monument. As Lefrak writes, the Park Service is currently conducting an $8.75 million restoration effort to repair the memorial’s internal roofing structure and remove black biofilm that began growing on the marble dome in 2010.
In a separate WAMU article, Lefrak explains that the biofilm is actually made up of fungi, algae and bacteria. These microorganisms live in the pores of rocks and produce a black substance to protect themselves from solar radiation. The Park Service is using special lasers to remove the surprisingly resilient gunk and expects to finish work by April 2020.
In addition to the Jefferson Memorial, the unsightly film has also cropped up at the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery, the D.C. War Memorial and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The Post’s Ruane notes that the Jefferson Memorial has experienced an array of issues since its dedication by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943. The structure sits on soft material dredged from the Potomac River and is supported by 634 sunken pilings and caissons, one of which reaches a depth of 138 feet belowground. Over the decades, these supports have shifted and settled, forcing officials to embark on major projects—most recently in 2010—aimed at preventing parts of the monument from sinking into the muck.
Rubenstein’s gift is part of a decade-long project he calls Patriotic Preservation. Previously, the billionaire has donated funds to build a library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, repair the Washington Monument, and restore parts of James Madison’s Montpelier home and Jefferson’s Monticello. In 2016, Rubenstein also donated $18.5 million to repair the Lincoln Memorial.
The planned Jefferson museum will add to a growing body of research centered on re-interpreting the president’s legacy. Jefferson, dubbed the “American Sphinx” in a nod to his pivotal role in United States history, was a man of huge contradictions whose ideas have long been championed by people across the political and ideological spectrum. Most notably, many have questioned his position on race relations: Jefferson was a slave owner who favored gradual emancipation, and he fathered four children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who worked on his Monticello plantation.
Rubenstein says, “While Thomas Jefferson is not without some things that we can question today, clearly he did some great things for our country, including being the author of the Declaration of Independence, creating the University of Virginia, and as president, he bought the land that we call the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of our country.”