Outside the stately brick capitol, Patrick Henry debates how to respond to British tyranny as a harried messenger arrives from Lexington to announce that armed conflict has begun. Later, outside the same building, a Native American in headdress defends his own nation amid a crowd watching young Shawnee men discuss a possible peace treaty with the British.
Down the road, George Washington is explaining the American strategy for a key battle in the Revolutionary War, while a few blocks away, a black woman talks with other slaves about the bitter irony of living among whites fighting for their freedom even though she’s destined to remain in bondage.
Colonial Williamsburg, where such re-enactments occur daily, has long been a shrine to an idealized American past. But never before has the institution put on shows like these—roving, large-scale street-theater pieces that stretch more than two hours in length. Nor have the stories of Native Americans and African slaves ever been so thoroughly integrated into the programming, depicting historic events as well as scenes from the everyday life of Williamsburg residents from 1774 to 1781. In both the sophistication of the performances and its multicultural view of history, Colonial Williamsburg is being modernized.
The evolution is an urgent matter for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which has seen its attendance numbers drop significantly in recent years. Some 707,000 people visited in 2008, compared with 1.1 million in 1985. The foundation says that its drive to provide a more entertaining and up-to-date visitor experience is helping stanch the decline. Still, revenues from ticket sales, restaurants, overnight accommodation, and the growing conference business have been insufficient to cover operating costs, forcing the foundation to dip into its endowment, now at $690 million, for several years running. Two years ago, a lack of visitors and funds for upkeep obliged Colonial Williamsburg to sell off Carter’s Grove, a renowned 18th-century plantation on the nearby James River. And to the dismay of some historians, Colonial Williamsburg now offers a joint ticket with the nearby Busch Gardens amusement park.
Indeed, presenting American history in a place that is both a tourist attraction and an educational landmark leads to inevitable strains between entertainment and authenticity. “There is a tension,” says foundation president Colin Campbell, “but authenticity wins. It’s so important to us, because we do not want to get into a position where what’s going on here isn’t what happened. There are plenty of places throughout the country to get kind of a warmed-over history. Our history is deeply researched.”
Like many so-called living museums in the United States, Williamsburg—granddaddy of them all—has suffered as a result of the decreased emphasis on history in schools and shorter attention spans in an electronic-media age. “That is affecting us in a significant way and we’re trying to respond to it in our marketing and in our programming,” Campbell says. “The passive experience of being guided through historic buildings, being informed by a character of what’s going on, is simply not what’s going to appeal multigenerationally today.” And so the museum has developed ever larger-scale re-enactments, with plenty of historical drama—and entertainment value. “We needed to engage the crowd more in the whole program and make them feel like they’re a part of the history,” Campbell says.