Shooting for inspiration

When James Madison’s Montpelier first contacted Mobelux to help them reimagine their website, we were honored. The home of a Founding Father, and one that’s just down the road in Orange, Virginia? We were definitely on board, but I’ll be honest, we didn’t really know all that much about James Madison (besides that his wife Dolley LOVED ice cream), and even less about the home he lived and died in. We’d find out that this lack of general knowledge about one of America’s greatest minds was part of their overall concern. How could we help them convince people to learn more about how Madison’s ideas set the tone for our every day life as Americans? From the outset we knew that it would be the perfect opportunity to flex our growing Production arm — we’d recently added our passions of photography and copywriting as offerings for our clients, and were excited to pursue a project that would allow us to get our hands dirty, literally, over the next few months.

Some quick history: when James Madison died, his wife Dolley was destitute, much due to the fact that her son was an alcoholic and a gambler, with constant debt that his loving mother and stepfather paid willingly. While she was well taken care of in DC thanks to her beloved status as America’s most prominent First Lady, she was forced to sell the family’s estate. A couple of owners later, and Montpelier was acquired by the Du Pont family, who, not being much for preservation, quintupled the size of the house, painted it pink, added a Japanese garden, bowling alley, horse stables and a race track, effectively burying the legacy of the President who wrote the Constitution and shaped the nation.
At her death in the mid-1980s, Marion Du Pont bequeather her beloved home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which eventually established the Montpelier Foundation. The mission of the Foundation was to preserve the Madisons’ legacy, discover more about their lives by peeling back the layers of paint, brick, and dirt that had been added to the site, and invite America to understand more about such an important figure in our history.

It was no surprise that we weren’t too familiar with Madison details; Montpelier is relatively new compared with the other Virginian Presidential houses, it wasn’t near a major Virginia city like Monticello or Mount Vernon, and frankly, until Hamilton, history classes seemed to allow Madison — never a flashy character — to blend in with the other Founding Fathers.

After familiarizing ourselves with the existing website and spending time on the grounds, we realized how much impact we’d be able to make. Their existing site was stuck in the outdated methodology of information overload, close to a thousand pages with small images. The thought had been that users would see the sheer volume of Madison information and know that Montpelier was a place of historical, archaeological, and constitutional experts. Small images, they hoped, would entice readers to visit, without giving away too much.

We quickly understood that, beyond a simple refresh to bring the site up to date, Montpelier would benefit from bold photography and compelling storytelling to bring the stories of the Madisons, the enslaved population, and the fourth President’s revolutionary ideas to life. In turn, this would grow visitation, donations, and education outreach through site engagement.

Mobelux co-founder and photographer Garrett Ross, photographer Ethan Hickerson, and myself immersed ourselves in Montpelier culture for months. We explored the house and grounds, covered special events, met dignitaries and foreign visitors, and learned more about James Madison than we’d ever thought possible.

One of the most impactful experiences was spending the night in Constitution Village, a grouping of Du Pont-era houses on the property which have been converted into lodging for the visiting scholars, teachers, and police who study at the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution. After we caught a beautiful sunset over the grounds, we ate dinner together as a team and traded stories and laughs into the night, something we don’t regularly get to do in our busy schedules.

What we brought home to our design team was inspiration; the bold images felt kinetic and instantly placed the viewer in the scene. We worked with the designers to identify how to best to integrate the bold photography into the new site in a way that would remain appealing and enticing. If we concentrated on making Montpelier visual and compelling, viewers would be drawn to experience it for themselves.

It was during a discussion over content strategy that we debated how best to move forward and who we should ask to lead our stories from a written perspective that fate swung our way. Beloved Richmond news upstart RVANews announced that they’d be shutting down operations after 10 years. We shed a tear, but also immediately reached out to long-time friend, part-time collaborator and Managing Editor, Susan Howson to inquire about her availability.

While a tattoo on her arm made it clear that Jefferson would always be Susan’s first presidential love, I hoped that she could still be wooed by the challenge, and the promise of endless supply of Dolley Madison’s favorite dessert. She joined the Mobelux team full-time and instantly made an impact, helping to wrangle all of the compelling threads in our feature story and giving depth and direction to the various avenues we were exploring in relation to “The Man, The Place, The Idea” that Montpelier encompassed. That feature, and ensuing posts on “James Madison and Religious Freedom”, “Slavery, the Constitution and a Lasting Legacy,” and much more have helped bring these stories to life in addition to increasing page views, visits, and donations.

Having such a dynamic venue in our backyard has awarded us so many opportunities to explore and learn about the programs and initiatives the Montpelier team is undertaking. Since the initial site launch, we can’t stay away, continuing to expand our engagement by providing assets and content that have been used across social media, in print publications, and to promote special exhibitions. We’ve covered visits from Young African Leaders, studying the constitution to impact their countries’ burgoning democracies, met government notaries visiting for press events and worked with the archeology team as they discover and catalogue newly discovered atrifacts. These opportunities provided photography and story elements that were woven throughout the Montpelier digital environment and helped give further depth to the brand experience.

The Center for the Constitution itself is now on board as a sub-client, and we’re researching and writing enough readable, compelling content about the effects of specific constitutional issues, that we half expect to receive honorary law degrees. We’re even researching coursework and content archives to further their story and mission, and expect to continue on other projects as our relationship matures.

A project like this is also one that continues to pay dividends. Not only is it work for a Virginia institution that we’re proud to have in our portfolio, it is also has presented us with amazing opportunities to engage with other organizations to bring their stories to life in a similar way. Check out Susan & Ethan’s dispatches from St. Vincent to learn about how we’re continuing to bring stories to life, in this case documenting the life-changing work The World Pediatric Project is doing throughout the Caribbean and Central America.

Montpelier unveils their latest exhibit, The Mere Distinction Of Colour on Sunday June 4th, and our team defined the photography and content that went into the digital preview.