Thinking about Colonial Williamsburg: A Second Helping

25 Sep

I’ve been thinking a little bit more about my first Colonial Williamsburg post.  What do we the public think of when we think of  living museums?  Are they classrooms or are they amusement parks?  Or maybe a little of both?  And how does the public’s perception of the site influence how history is interpreted or taught there?  Can history really be “lived” in an amusement park?

Like many historic attractions, Williamsburg has taken on a meaning of its own beyond the events that happened there in the eighteenth century.  The Williamsburg we know today is a twentieth-century invention.  Along the way, Colonial Williamsburg became what its ruling foundation markets the town as:  Colonial Williamsburg©. The town of Williamsburg was a prosperous American colonial city that declined after the Revolution and the move of the state capitol to Richmond, and fell into almost complete ruin.   After it was reconstructed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his army of architects, in a way, it ceased to be simply Williamsburg, Virginia.  It was transformed into Rockefeller’s vision of colonial America, Colonial Williamsburg©.  Rockefeller found a city in shambles and resolved to rebuild it as a school of living history where, through his generous funding, he could teach Americans about themselves.

The Governor's Palace at Williamsburg, Virginia. This building shown here is a twentieth-century reconstruction (thanks to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) of the original 18th century palace which burned in 1781. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

When it was first rehabilitated, Colonial Williamsburg© had less in common with 1770s America and more in common with the contemporary America of the 1920s.  They were facing the same issues then as we do now – reshuffling of racial and gender roles, economic booms and busts, immigration struggles, and growing pains of a globalizing world.  And in the 1920s, these questions were inevitably reflected in the sanitized version of colonial life presented to the public.   After the major social reform movements of the 1960s and 1970s, scholars and interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg© have expanded their focus beyond Rockefeller’s original vision of a squeaky-clean Revolutionary history, especially where race and gender are concerned.   Though the site’s historians and management have embraced a more inclusive view of colonial history, today’s Colonial Williamsburg© however still reinforces Rockefeller, Jr.’s own view of a conservative capitalist interpretation of American history.  In the transition from the real Williamsburg to Colonial Williamsburg©, there has been an inevitable process of imagination and reimagination of the site – a process that doesn’t always get the actual history just right.

Despite the changes the present makes on the past, we love visiting these historic sites.  Whether we the public realize it or not, the sites that witnessed our shared history retain a kind of residual power long after the seminal event has passed.  We still hold on to this almost spiritual notion that interacting with these sites is the same as going to religious services.  These sites act as machines by which we can interface with long-gone figures of the past.  With a little luck (and a little hard work on the part of the site staff), we can also leave the site more educated and more enlightened.

That’s why we go to places like Plimoth Plantation, or Portsmouth, NH’s Strawberry Banke, or Acadian Village in my hometown of Lafayette, LA, or Colonial Williamsburg.    Seeing (and sometimes if it’s not roped off, touching) what is left behind by pivotal moments in our common story gives us a thrill, sure.  But participating with these sites is our way of getting a chance to take part in the great events ourselves.


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