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Colonial Williamsburg Isn’t Republican Disneyland

Social history has been a dominant force on the middle plantation since long before the Tea Party.

…and it hasn’t been for years. This is a great account of the ongoing culture wars of Colonial Williamsburg, in Salon of all places:

 Colonial Williamsburg, in its subtly transformed 21st-century mode, feels like a covert battleground in America’s culture wars. It’s where an overwhelmingly white and conservative audience meets the post-Howard Zinn cutting edge of history. (How much attention they pay, and how much they like it, is another question altogether.) If your ideas about the place are based on that grade-school trip you took with your grandparents, I can assure you that the effect is pretty different now. Beneath its manicured and bewigged surfaces, Colonial Williamsburg is trying to break free of its stodgy traditions and bring its visitors face to face with the internal conflicts and contradictions of the Revolutionary War era and their ripple effects across politics and society today. …

These startling and even confrontational vignettes – part of a growing and evolving street-theater program called “Revolutionary City,” which explores the social conflict of the Revolutionary era from a variety of perspectives — are not isolated events. Over the last three decades, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a nonprofit originally envisioned and endowed by John D. Rockefeller in the 1920s, has undergone a gradual but ambitious reinvention, fueled partly by changing cultural and social realities but also by a wealth of new historical research into the Colonial and Revolutionary periods.

This transition has been going on for decades as the research and interpretation staff has slowly been replaced by new historians trained to bring out the stories of those groups left out of the standard story, and the author cites the definitive account of how it happened. In fact, to anyone who’s read Handler and Gable’s 1997 book—the source of the “Republican Disneyland” charge, though a 1975 New York Times article by Dick Schaap was the first to compare the two—Andrew O’Hehir’s account in Salon will be pretty familiar. They were the first to argue that there was some tension between the new face of Colonial Williamsburg and the reasons most people had for making pilgrimages to the middle plantation.

One could take the view that Handler and Gable basically chart the encroachment by the academic left on the history of the American founding, but it’s more complicated than that—early iterations of Colonial Williamsburg really did include some poor history that needed correction. Not just the programming, either. A savvy observer walking down Duke of Gloucester street might realize that the door and cupola of the old colonial capitol building are off-center. This is an invention of those who reconstructed it in the early 20th century, as Pulitzer-winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 1997:

… there is a lot of scholarly soul-searching going on in Williamsburg and other places about how to increase the authenticity of the imitation. Younger historians have even committed the heresy of claiming that the Williamsburg Capitol is not that authentic at all.

The rebuilders of the reconstructed Capitol have now been accused of redesigning it. It takes just about a half century for the cycles of taste and style to turn, for one revelation to be replaced by another. More recent scholarship has suggested that the original documents and foundation remains were misread in the 1930s. Taught to think in terms of the formal classical symmetry of their Beaux Arts training, the reconstruction architects could not believe, or accept, that the building’s axis could have been off-center. The entrance contradicts the evidence of the foundation and is probably in the wrong place. Other spatial relationships are also questionable.

She was drawing from the work of Carl Lounsbury, now head of CW’s architectural research department, who first revealed the error in a 1990 paper for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. It’s never been fixed and it isn’t mentioned in the layman’s guides to the building today, but that CW encourages that sort of self-criticism from its scholars is commendable.

Colonial Williamsburg has a long history of pushing the envelope with its interpretive programs, too—in 1994 it went forward with a mock slave auction on the steps of the old court house in the face of considerable controversy. The NAACP opposed even putting it on, but if you read accounts of the black interpreters who played the slaves, they viewed forgetting such scenes as the greater crime.

Of course the portrayal of slavery is one of the biggest ways in which today’s Colonial Williamsburg is different from the one that opened in 1934, and it’s also the most uncomfortable aspect of colonial history visitors are forced to think about. Some changes are quite recent: A plantation close to the visitor’s center is nearing completion (a site to interpret rural life, replacing Carter’s Grove which was sold to feckless CNET founder Halsey Minor after being damaged in Hurricane Isabel), and while I was interning in CW’s public affairs office in the fall of 2010, Jesse Williams, of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame, played the main part in a story about the uncertain fate of Lord Dunmore’s slaves when he abdicated his Governorship and his estate, slaves and all, was sold by the revolutionaries. This is the sort of complicated portrayal of the founding—people we normally consider heroes being implicated in the dissolution of families and trade in human beings—that marks the new style of CW interpretation. Check out O’Hehir’s piece for more examples.

Linking to the Salon article, my friend James Padilioni, a one-time CW interpreter and American studies PhD candidate in Williamsburg remarked on Facebook that “the history we teach in the streets is decidedly not whiggish, and not nationalistic.” He’s right, but allow me to quibble with one whiggish element of “Revolutionary City,” the flagship interpretive program since 2006.

Perhaps the most tellingly politicized aspect of “Revolutionary City” is its deliberately ahistorical reading of the Declaration. Nearly all the changes to CW’s interpretive programs have been toward greater historical fidelity, but not this one. It begins as a proclamation from the balcony of the old capitol, but then parts of it are recited by people in the crowd below; passed, passage-by-passage, among soldiers, common people, and slaves. The effect, I suppose, is to emphasize its ostensibly universal principles, and maybe even to point out that its promises remained unfulfilled for large swaths of the population. But I’m not convinced it really does that; it’s always struck me as overly sentimental and more than a bit confusing.

As something of a Colonial Williamsburg partisan (in college I had Gable as a professor and did some research on Virginia Anglican churches for Lounsbury), I feel obliged to point out that “Revolutionary City” wasn’t the first interpretive program to incorporate the histories of non-white people. In an article for The Public Historian, Edward Ayres quoted a visitor’s guide for the program that preceded it, “Becoming Americans,” implemented in 1996, which describes its goal as to tell “how diverse peoples, holding different and sometimes conflicting personal ambitions, evolved into a society that valued both liberty and equality.” He also said “the idea for this concept as the foundation underlying most of Colonial Williamsburg’s programs originated as early as 1977.”



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