Colonial Williamsburg in 2023

Posted in on site by Editor on May 19, 2023

The Foundations of the Governors Palace in 1930. (Visual Resources, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; photo by Thomas Layton). As Jennifer Scheussler writes, Colonial Williamsburg is now “a 301-acre complex consisting of more than 60 restored or reconstructed 18th-century buildings, 30 gardens, five hotels, three theaters, two art museums and a long, tangled history of grappling with questions of authenticity, national identity and what it means to get the past ‘right’.”

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Schuessler’s feature article on Williamsburg is useful for both the history of the Foundation and its present-day vision and commitments. CH

Jennifer Schuessler, with photographs by Matt Eich, “Building a Better Colonial Williamsburg,” The New York Times (8 May 2023). Virginia’s reconstructed colonial capital, long criticized as presenting an idealized image of the American Revolution, brings its history into the 21st century.

“. . . After decades of declining attendance and financial instability, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the private entity that owns and operates the site, is rethinking not just some of its structures, but also the stories it tells, adding or expanding offerings relating to Black, Native American, and L.G.B.T.Q. history.

And it’s doing so amid a fierce partisan battle over American history, when the date “1776”—emblazoned on souvenir baseball hats on sale here—has become a partisan rallying cry.

Some conservative activists have accused Colonial Williamsburg of going “woke,” a charge also lobbed against Monticello and Montpelier, James Madison’s home. But Cliff Fleet, a former tobacco executive who took over as the foundation’s president and CEO in early 2020, firmly rejects it. Fleet describes his approach as leaning into Colonial Williamsburg’s longtime mission of presenting “fact-based history,” grounded in rigorous research. “That’s true to our brand,” he said. “Everything is going to be what actually happened. That’s who we are.”

Recounting “what actually happened” is no simple matter, as any historian will tell you. But when it comes to the state of contemporary Colonial Williamsburg, some facts speak powerfully.

In 2021, the foundation raised a record-breaking $102 million, up 42 percent from the previous high in 2019. To date, it has collected more than $6 million for the excavation and reconstruction of the First Baptist Church, home to one of the earliest Black congregations in the United States (founded in 1776), and more than $8 million for the restoration of the Bray School, which educated free and enslaved Black children in the 1760s and ’70s.

Those projects have won support across the political spectrum, including from Gov. Glenn Youngkin. In February, the governor—a Republican who on his first day in office signed an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory and other “inherently divisive concepts” in public schools—spoke at an event for the Bray School, citing the need “to teach all of our history, all of it, the good and the bad.”

For some longtime Williamsburg-watchers, the institution’s leadership has deftly steered through today’s choppy political waters by staying true to the past.

“It’s a remarkable shift, but in some ways a return to C.W.’s original mission,” said Karin Wulf, a historian and the former executive director of the Omohundro Institute, an independent research group at the College of William & Mary. “The scholarship of decades has shown us this fuller, richer picture of Early America,” Wulf said. “It’s diverse, it’s complex, it’s violent. But it’s the real thing.” . . .

After World War II, Colonial Williamsburg became a patriotic shrine and “symbol of democracy in the troubled world,” as a top executive put it. The Bicentennial brought a new boom, with annual paid attendance peaking in the mid-1980s at 1.1 million visitors, many of whom bedded down in period-style inns (or snapped up authorized colonial-style home products).

But not everyone appreciated the tastefully spic-and-span aesthetic. Writing in The New York Times in 1963, the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “superbly executed vacuum,” which fostered “an unforgivable fuzziness between the values of the real and the imitation.”

The carefully tended history also stirred criticism, particularly as social history, with its emphasis on ordinary people and marginalized groups, surged in the academy.

In the 1770s, more than half of the town’s 1,800 residents were Black, though visitors to the modern-day recreation would not always have known it. . . .

“True” is a word heard often at Williamsburg, where interpreters—including one portraying Oconostota, an 18th-century Cherokee diplomat who came to Williamsburg in 1777—regularly break character to explain the evidence behind their stories.

The foundation’s audience research, Fleet said, indicates that showing your work helps built trust. “One of the most important things to do, particularly in this age of polarization, is to let them know how you know,” he said.

The First Baptist Church project exemplifies how Colonial Williamsburg’s storytelling is literally built from the ground up, and rooted in discoveries—and rediscoveries—on site. . . .

The full article is available here»


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