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Colonial Williamsburg's New Reenactments

Re-enacting colonial times in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Photo: Emiliano Granado

Williamsburg has also just introduced an iPhone application so visitors can download information about exhibits and sites. In the works is a downloadable interactive game for children that will involve finding clues as they move from one point of interest to another.

In an effort to improve the guest experience, the foundation has spent $220 million over the past few years to renovate the Williamsburg Inn, the Williamsburg Lodge, and other hotels it operates next to the historic district, and has opened a major spa facility a short walk from where Thomas Jefferson once argued the patriots’ cause. The spa joins three equally improbable golf courses in the area already operated by Colonial Williamsburg.

Nevertheless, history is front and center here, and the re-enactments staged on public squares display an intentional and discomfiting relevance to America today. In one such scene, an unemployed carpenter in financial straits is approached by a recruiter enticing him to join the Revolutionary army, while his anxious wife argues he shouldn’t go. In a later scene after the carpenter has decided to enlist, the now distraught wife learns he has been captured by the British and fears she may never see him again. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the impact of those kinds of war experiences on families is no different in the 21st century than it was in the 18th century,” says Campbell of historical parallels drawn by visitors. “You hear people talking about it as you walk down the street. People make connections for themselves.”

Williamsburg has long been criticized by the cognoscenti. Back in 1963, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “dangerous bore” that was corrupting preservation practices across the nation. She later accused Colonial Williamsburg of inauthentic restoration and “fudging of facts” that helped in “paving the way for the new world order of Walt Disney Enterprises.” A Duke University Press study from 1997 deems Williamsburg “a Republican Disneyland” where history’s harsh realities are papered over in favor of a more marketable past.

Colonial Williamsburg’s current emphasis on social history and the role of slaves goes some way in responding to such critiques. But it can also unsettle some visitors who may prefer to simply soak up the genteel ambience. “A lot of folks don’t want to hear about it, black or white,” says Sam Wilson, an African American who interprets the lives of slaves at the home of Peyton Randolph, a leading Virginia politician who headed the Continental Congress.

Rather than just underscoring “how slaves were beaten and mistreated,” Williamsburg is putting in the forefront individual slaves who strove for liberty and the betterment of their condition, according to Harvey Bakari, a research historian in the African American program. “What do you want people to take away from the experience? Is it just interpreting how horrible it was or how people resisted and tried to change their lives?” Bakari rejects the suggestion that this approach sugarcoats history. “We have to select what we will highlight. It doesn’t mean we’re neglecting the harshness.”

Colonial Williamsburg put the institution of slavery center stage for the first time in 1994 when it re-enacted a public slave auction, a frequent occurrence in the late 18th century. That event sparked criticism from the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a trivialization of African American history. “We never did it again,” Bakari says. Now, he adds, Williamsburg is seeking different ways to find “a hook to get an audience that wouldn’t look at you before.”

Indeed, the broader problem faced by Williamsburg is how to enhance its attraction for a new generation of visitors for whom the British colonial era is remote and alien to their own heritage, particularly the growing population of Hispanics and other immigrants. In response, the museum has begun promoting education for citizenship, focusing on how individuals made a difference by causing the Revolution to happen.

Researchers for the foundation have written a textbook along these lines that was recently adopted for use in California elementary schools. In addition, a secondary school program is in the works involving civics in the context of American history, closely linking the values that were debated and fought for in colonial Williamsburg. As Campbell puts it, “This is where the country of which you are now a citizen, with responsibilities and rights as a citizen, was shaped; the place where much was formulated that affects your life today.”


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