Historical Place: Colonial Williamsburg

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A street in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia–Photos by Deb and Bruce Watley

I was in Virginia last weekend for my husband’s graduation. The festivities included visiting some friends’ home in Williamsburg for fun, as well as an academic meeting.

But one day we were able to squeeze in a couple short visits to Colonial Williamsburg.

We’d been to Colonial Williamsburg several years ago and saw lots of the interpreters at work in various colonial occupations and the inside of a number of the historical buildings. So, I survived not getting to see everything this time.

That’s part of the beauty of Colonial Williamsburg. You don’t have to do a tour or spend a whole day there to benefit.

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You need to buy a pass or tickets to get into the buildings, such as the printer’s or the milliner’s shop, and interact with the interpreters there. But, there are certain places, such as a pub or a garden, where the general public is welcome. And there are interpreters, that ride horses or stroll up and down the street, who interact with visitors.

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A few streets are open to cars, but most are only accessible by walkers, runners, and bicyclists–and without an entrance fee. There is also a commercial area on one end of the little community that boasts restaurants, book stores, ice cream shops, mall-type clothing stores, and cheese and candy stores, etc.

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On this visit, we hit up some of the shops and strolled down part of the main road. The thing that I really noticed this trip was how beautiful the gardens were, especially since they are about a month ahead of our gardens in the upper Midwest.

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Have you visited Colonial Williamsburg or another living history-type place/monument/museum? What is your favorite thing about visiting historical sites?

21 comments

  1. Melanie

    I used to love CW. It is anbeautiful place where one can get lost in the past…or at least, it used to be. But executive leadership has made some very unfortunate and extremely misguided decisions lately, and the place that I once visited for a week at a time, twice per year, is now the bain of most public historians’ existence.

    Within the field of museum studies and professional historians who specialize in public history, CW has willingly surrendered its credibility in favor of spas and corporate-sponsored trick-or-treating. These days they are in a horrific downward spiral of nonsensical programming and financial mismanagment as they have opted to go very far off-mission and turn the entire place into a theme park instead of maintaining the extremely high standard they once held as an educational and preservation-focused institution. They have started adding a lot of fictitious programming (ghost tours and the like) and sold off a lot of their collections as well as lowered their standards for interpretation and replaced a lot of professional historians who presented in first-person with actors who know little about their subject.

    Worst of all, CW formally severed all ties with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History last July. That affiliation was a big part of CW’s history education mission and dissolving the partnership essentially dilutes the credibility CW once had as a history authority. Such a shame. Still a fun place to go for many people, I’m sure, but they are no longer the standard by which living history sites should be measured, and they have the dismal financial records to prove it.

    As a public historian who once dreamt of taking my PhD at William and Mary specifically so I might immerse myself in collections work at CW, these drastic changes disappoint me in ways which cannot be expressed fully.

    Luckily, there are many, many other historic sites which greatly value their mission and offer exceptional programming: Monticello, Royall House and Slave Quarters, Mount Vernon, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer…so all is not lost. Perhaps someday soon CW will recognize what horrible choices they’ve made and reverse course, right the ship, and get back to the mission before it’s too late. But I’m not holding my breath.
    *Steps down from soapbox.*

    • Deb Watley

      Melanie, I appreciate the historian’s perspective! You see and know things the general public doesn’t. I love going to living history museums so I can see how people dressed and how craftspeople worked. I’ve also enjoyed Yorktown and Jamestown, both the visitor’s sites and the archeological sites. I visited Mount Vernon 20-some years ago and loved it. I understand they have done a lot of work to it since. I’ve been to Living History Farms in Iowa multiple times. I’ve wanted to see Monticello since I was in high school. Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer is a new one to me, but I’ll be in the area this summer. I’ll try to get there! I’ve also never heard of the Royall House and Slave Quarters. Thanks for the heads up on ways to look for excellence at historical sites that are also tourist sites!

      • Melanie

        You’re welcome! I’m sorry to be so negative about CW; it has been a devastating loss to the field of Public History and a hot topic of discussion in conferences, journal articles, and Museum Studies graduate programs all over the country. We feel the loss acutely.
        But, it is also a lesson in what mot to do for the thousands of smaller institutions. Many places like Old Sturbridge Village and Genesee Country Village are taking the lessons to heart and working to protect themselves from those mistakes made at CW.

        Have you been to Conner Prairie? I keep meaning to get there and this summer I finally will. I’m always hearing its praises from visitors, but know little from the insider perspective. Looking forward to seeing it for myself.

        • Deb Watley

          It’s good to know that other sites are learning from one’s mistakes. And thanks for giving me so many new places to visit. They all look interesting!

      • Melanie

        Also: Royall House and Slave Quarters is relatively unknown, so don’t feel bad that you haven’t heard of it. It is located in Medford, Massachusetts, and was the home of the Royall family, who were slaveholders. Many people do not realize that slavery happened in the North, because the system here was very different from what we think of in the South (no large plantations, so most slaveholders had one or two; wealthier ones had a handful of slaves, and the practice was outlawed state-by-state within a few years after the Revolution). The Royall House is one of the few Northern sites with extensive documentation about the slaveholding family as well as the enslaved people living there, and the interpretation is extensive, highly professional, and academically sound. It’s the kind of place to which other small sites aspire. I was recently on an after-hours field trip there, led by several board members and a distinguished historian who also teaches Public History at Harvard. It was great to have the opportunity to learn from this group of experts exactly how this historic house museum is facing 21st century challenges head-on and how they have adapted their approach to increase their long-term sustainability. They have a fascinating story to tell.

        BTW: The Royall family were the subject of several paintings by John Singleton Copley which now hang in Boston’s MFA. Isaac Royall was responsible for the endowment that still exists at Harvard Law School, and Harvard Law just decided to make changes to their shield/logo and naming to honor the memory of the enslaved people whose suffering and labor made the Royalls so wealthy. It was a big news story around here, with all the predictable debate surrounding the changes.

        • Deb Watley

          That’s fascinating! I remember seeing headlines about the Harvard Law shield change. Is there some kind of an award for top-notch historical sites? How would the general public know if a site has academic and historical integrity?

        • Melanie

          Major clues involve the credentials of the director and educational staff, as well as the kinds of programming offered. Look at the website for upcoming events; do they feature historians as guest lecturers? Do they offer enrichment programming for adults, especially for educators? Does corporate sponsorship get in the way of their storytelling? (Clue at CW: apparently there is a giant M&Ms statue in the visitor center???) Sites with extremely limited resources but which stick to a mission of historical integrity will always show themselves as such even when their resources are extremely limited. Look at their mission statement, too. And: are they a 501(c)3 non-profit entity? If so, they are required by statute to reinvest surplus funds into the stated mission. That means they are putting their money (however great or small the amount) toward the mission at all times. For a historic site, that means conservation and preservation of historic objects, proper curation and research to interpret objects and the story of the place, educating the public, and (ideally) continuous scholarship with rigorous standards. Even a place with few professional (that is, paid) staff can maintain these standards if leadership, including the executive board, understand the mission and their responsibility to uphold said mission.

          This doesn’t mean they can never have fundraisers or events that seem a little off-mission, because part of sustainable stewardship involves bringing in new visitors to increase membership and potential donor base. But MOST of the programming and events should be mission-driven. It can be a bit of a learning curve to discover the differences between good and not-so-great historic sites, and appearances can be deceiving. A gorgeous shiny museum might have lousy scholarship. Another museum may be in dire need of maintenance updates but their scholarship standards may be very high. I’ve seen both…and I’ve seen crummy run-down places with no redeeming value as well as shiny, slick-looking places that also do great history.

          Another thing: look for affiliations. Remember how I mentioned that CW dissolved the affiliation with Omohundro? Omohundro continues just fine without them, but the decision was driven by CW and it means that their (CW’s) interest in real scholarship is lower than it once was. Omohundro produces the excellent and renowned history journal, William and Mary Quarterly–a key resource for scholars of early American History. Why would CW let go of that?
          Museums which work with leading universities to host internships for up-and-coming academic historians (ie future professors) and public history professionals (historians who opt to work outside of the professoriate, like me) are always a good bet. Some really tiny house museums (like Royall House) have some very strong ties with leading universities (like Harvard).
          Does that help? I know it’s a lot to wade through…

        • Melanie

          You’re welcome! Some organizations that vet museums include American Association of Museums (AAM) which offers a formal process of accreditation and AASLH (American Association of State and Local History) and ALHFAM (Assocation of Living History Farm & Agricultural Museums)…these organizations offer all manner of professional development for museum staff including certifications and supports for program development, recruiting, fundraising, marketing, and curation practices. Museums which tout their affiliations with these organizations tend to take their educational mission very seriously, so their association with them is a good sign.

  2. Amy Houts

    Deb, I loved visiting CW, but that was 15 years ago. We went at Christmastime and it was very cold (for Virginia) that year especially when heated only by fireplaces. I remembering thinking, “I could live here,” even with the cold. My favorite thing was the architecture. So charming! I’m so shocked to read Melanie’s comments. That’s too bad!

    • Deb Watley

      Yes, it is sad!

      I love seeing the architecture, too! And to think that those were some of the buildings our founding fathers frequented. As for the cold, the last time I was there it was in the middle of summer, the interpreters were wearing multiple layers, and I was grateful for knee-length skirts and air conditioning. I bet CW is beautiful at Christmas!

    • Melanie

      You’re welcome, Jane. Museum advocacy and sustainability is a key focus of my work, so helping people understand how they function (especially what “nonprofit status” means, both legally as well as in practice) is a top priority. So many wonderful museums are overshadowed by the glam and glitz of big-name institutions, but most (even the least-funded and least-well-know ) typically have at least something educational and interesting to offer. The trouble is, of course, they can’t survive if people don’t visit! 😉

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