The historical attraction that is Colonial Williamsburg—the original “living museum”—is updating its act for a new generation.
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.
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.”
The closest airport to Colonial Williamsburg is Newport News–Williamsburg International Airport; US Airways and Delta offer regular flights. Washington, D.C., is a 2 1/2-hour drive away. Tickets to the grounds start at $22.
Williamsburg Inn 136 E. Francis St.; 757/220-7978; colonialwilliamsburgresort.com; doubles from $319.
Great Value Williamsburg Lodge 310 S. England St.; 757/253-2277; colonialwilliamsburgresort.com; doubles from $129.
Aromas A small coffee shop on Merchant Square serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner inside or on its outdoor patio. 431 Prince George St.; 757/221-6676; lunch for two $12.
Chowning’s Tavern The Revolutionary ambience prevails here, with 18th-century fare like Brunswick stew and Welsh rarebit. 109 E. Duke of Gloucester St.; 757/229-2141; dinner for two $22.
The Regency-style main inn dates from 1937, with a new Sylvia Sepielli spa; easily the area's most atmospheric hotel.
A small coffee shop on Merchant Square serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner inside or on its outdoor patio.
The revolutionary spirit prevails after 5, when 18th-century fare like Brunswick stew and Welsh rarebit are accompanied by colonial-style entertainment and family sing-alongs.