Thinking about Colonial Williamsburg

7 Aug

The Washington Post published this story yesterday on the hoards of “tea party”-ers descending this summer on Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.  It fit perfectly with a book I read last year – Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s The New History in an Old Museum, a journey through the interpretation, maintenance, and marketing of Colonial Williamsburg® as seen through the statistical minds of social scientists.  Handler and Gable present an ethnographical survey of today’s Colonial Williamsburg®, a mammoth-size institution with more than a couple of big challenges on its plate, among which are the faithful preservation and interpretation of its historic and recreated sites, the continuation of a vast living history complex in an age of education funding cuts and increasing lack of interest in history, and the delicate dance of for-profit and non-profit entities that keep the complex solvent.   It’s an informative and entertaining read – pick up a copy here.

Much of Handler and Gable’s book is dedicated to the discussion of living history interpreters, actors-turned-experts who don period garb and depict everyday citizens of mid-eighteenth century Williamsburg, discussing life in the capital city or the politics of impending war.  And as the Washington Post article explains, sometimes the actors portray real people, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, all three of whom were once members of the House of Burgesses that met in the Capitol on the east side of the Duke of Gloucester Street.  It’s the intersection of these street corner actors and twenty-first century politics that gets interesting:

Sometimes, the activists appear surprised when the Founding Fathers don’t always provide the “give ’em hell” response they seem to be looking for.

When a tourist asked George Washington a question about what should be done to those colonists who remain loyal to the tyrannical British king, Washington interjected: “I hope that we’re all loyal, sir” — a reminder that Washington, far from being an early agitator against the throne, was among those who sought to avoid revolution until the very end.

When another audience member asked the general to reflect on the role of prayer and religion in politics, he said: “Prayers, sir, are a man’s private concern. They are not a matter of public interest. And nor should they be. There is nothing so personal as a man’s relationship with his creator.”

Tea party activists are heading to Williamsburg for guidance and inspiration, and that’s alright enough – the old capital city of Virginia was in fact a hotbed of Revolutionary thought and saw walking along its mud streets a cavalcade of members of the Early American Pantheon.   Today’s political activists are drawn to the sites where our history was/is written; in most cases, we see them on the National Mall or, as is seen in Chicago, the nearest City Hall or public square.  And interestingly enough, we see the politically-minded heading now to Colonial Williamsburg.

Emblazoned below the Colonial Williamsburg® logo found on the foundation’s website, www.history.org (it’s setting a high bar for itself – history.org!), is its motto/advertising slogan “that the future may learn from the past.”  But it’s pretty difficult there today to get either straight.  Colonial Williamsburg isn’t just a town anymore.  It is now Colonial Williamsburg®, a reimagination of architectural and social history rather than a straight-up preservation job.  There have been in the past criticisms of the reconstruction of the town’s lost building fabric, including two of the largest buildings in Williamsburg, the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace, both rebuilt from relative conjecture in the 1930s.  And conjecture and inaccuracies inevitably creep in when it comes to the interpretations given by Colonial Williamsburg®’s living history actors.  But I’m glad to see that the actors are well-researched and a bit gutsier than most when it comes to standing by the truth of what really happened there.  Maybe a little bit of the courage displayed long ago by the 250-year-old men and women they portray is rubbing off on them.

It may speak to Colonial Williamsburg®’s success as a center for popular historical interpretation that it has been absorbed, if ever so slightly, into our current political discussion.  It’s heartening to know that at least an attempt is being made there to assert facts about the Founders’ and their times, instead of going the easier route reciting time-honored (but factually incorrect) myths.  But frankly, it’s a challenge to sustain a place for the future to learn from the past when their presentation of the past is so informed by the present.

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