This was going to be a quick post comparing two historic sites in Keene, New Hampshire, about an important building that has been turned into a Mexican restaurant (the shrimp tacos were terrific) and a well-funded, well-interpreted, and entirely forgettable building just a few blocks away that could tomorrow disappear without a trace and no one would notice.  Moreover, I strenuously try to avoid writing about Colonial Williamsburg (CW) given my intimate association with the place and ongoing relationships with the people who were and are there.  But the CW that I remember, and to which I owe so much, seems increasingly to be a part of the history of heritage tourism, so much is the place changing under its new leadership.  Whether those changes are for good or ill are impossible for me to say.  As Jefferson might put it, those matters might be best left for “the mists of time” to reveal.  I mean, one can roll one’s eyes at the introduction of pirate ghosts in new Halloween programming as wrongheaded, since Blackbeard’s pirates had little to do with Williamsburg and the city’s colonial denizens did not recognize October 31 as anything but the night before November 1 (and the nearby Mariner’s Museum, where it’s mission-appropriate, already does the pirate thing with panache).  But if the details of history are to be shaved a bit to boost short-term ticket sales, then that’s an interpretive choice with which one can politely disagree.  In any case, there’s no avoiding the fact that everything CW does now is worth watching by public and academic historians (I still don’t get the difference between the two) because, like it or not, it has become an object lesson in how to remake, or reimagine, a financially struggling historic site.  And a massive one at that.  So under a gargantuan microscope it goes.

The most important changes, in my opinion, are not really those involving the costumed interpretations on the streets or in the buildings.  As my compatriots here in Boston have learned, I have strong opinions on such things but, in the end, guests will vote with their credit and debit cards on them, regardless of how much folks like me grumble about their content, and then scholars can glean lessons from them.  It’s the decisions that are not so visible and have a greater long-term potential impact that beg for more targeted comment.  I recently wrote about CW’s decision to end its 72-year relationship with the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, a place fairly described by one of America’s finest historians as “one of the crown jewels of the American historical profession” — news that still baffles me and my colleagues in that profession.  And this morning, in a much less straightforward move, word arrived in my e-mail inbox that, if true, might deal yet another blow to CW’s mission “That the Future May Learn from the Past”: The potential departure of the Vice President in charge of the division of Productions, Publications and Learning Ventures (PPLV), the rumored end to future Electronic Field Trips, and a possible directive that PPLV–the fine folks behind CW’s most valuable education programs–wrap up all existing projects.  Merely the thought of all that leaves one with scarcely a word to say.  Well, almost.

In 1930, the Rev. W. A. R. Goodwin, the leading architect of Williamsburg’s restoration, reflected on the purpose of the place and the reasons for spending so much of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s money on it during the Great Depression.  Rockefeller, of course, had long been aware of the importance of preserving America’s past.  One could spend an entire summer visiting wonderful places across the northeast, such as Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, that would have disappeared long ago had it not been for Rockefeller largesse.  But in Williamsburg, the team of Goodwin and Rockefeller had something more active in mind — not preservation, but restoration, and not just the restoration of an entire colonial capital, but that of a state of mind.  Yes, that vision was infused with an almost nauseating, to modern sensibilities, notion of American exceptionalism, and flavored with hefty doses of hero worship for the “great men” of the founding era.  It was intended to infuse guests with a new understanding of patriotism and “a deeper love for their native land.”  But their scope also proved capacious enough to leave room for later CW leaders to also restore, along with the buildings, the experience of those mostly left out of the historical record, whom also built the American nation, women and men, free and enslaved, as part of a fascinating trajectory that one could map along with changes in American society.

Either way, the core of Rockefeller’s original goal was education and, through it, inspiration.  The team of Rockefeller and Goodwin looked to a future in which “Modern windows will open on vistas stretching through the distance into the past.”  And those vistas were opened and expanded as technology advanced, whether to the academic community through the William & Mary Quarterly, to guests through tours and programs based on firm scholarship, to schoolchildren through the terrific Electronic Field Trips, and, most recently, through the innovations of CW’s Digital History Center, which reconstructed the Revolutionary City of 1776, allowing online visitors to “walk” through a nifty Virtual Williamsburg, based on the latest architectural, archaeological, and historical research, without leaving their homes.  Generations of CW leaders and interpreters held on to that original vision of inspiration through education and have allowed ever more expansive audiences to stretch “through the distance into the past” and connect that past to their present.

But, seen in a certain light, that commitment could seem at risk.  The spin from CW will likely be that any moves involving education programs are part of a major and much-needed reorganization, which would be wrapped around just enough truth to be excusable.  And they could add that their commitment to education remains strong.  After all, haven’t they just committed to new online learning programs for teachers?  Furthermore, EFTs were expensive productions and ever tightening public school budgets meant that fewer of them could afford to participate in the program.  In short, EFTs won Emmy awards but lost money, and with belts tightening across CW, like it or not, tough decisions have to be made about what programs can be kept and what can be sacrificed.

The main concern, though, is not the reality but the perception of such changes, coming on the heels of decisions like the separation from the Omohundro Institute.  They raise legitimate questions of whether CW, or any similarly situated institution, has lost its way in favor of improving its bottom line as quickly as possible.  It’s just as likely, as a good friend of mine at CW nicely and accurately put it this morning, that the boatloads of intellect and imagination possessed by the people at PPLV can be harnessed to help guide whatever reorganization results, and leave them with a streamlined, but much more effective, mission.  That’s a worthwhile set of questions for any, even every, historic site.  I consistently argue to sites and the people who run them that fiscal stability, organizational effectiveness, community engagement, and a commitment to a relevant, clearly identified mission are not mutually exclusive.  Or at least they don’t have to be.

In any case, the issues swirling around Colonial Williamsburg could make it the highest rated reality show in public history, something the producers at the Travel Channel should scramble for, given where it is on a new story arc and the plot lines that are developing in front of observers.  Let’s just hope the resolution isn’t that of a declension narrative, especially for Rockefeller’s vision: Inspiration of the present through education about the past strikes me as a pretty good reason to get up in the morning, every morning.

2 thoughts on “Blurring Rockefeller’s Vision: Is Colonial Williamsburg Risking a Future That Can Learn From the Past?

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. As a friend, who was as close to CW, just told me, it is clearly going down the path of a leisure destination with a colonial backdrop. That’s a misguided strategic decision on the board’s part, in my opinion, and this is more clear evidence of it.

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