“Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck”: Halloween and Colonial Williamsburg’s Historical Collision

“If there is one firm guiding and restraining word which should be passed on to those who will be responsible for the restoration in the future, that one word is integrity. A departure from truth here and there will inevitably produce a cumulative deterioration of authenticity and consequent loss of public confidence. Loyalty demands that this principle of integrity be adhered to.”  –  The Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, A Briefe & True Report Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (April 1941).

Because Colonial Williamsburg is so rapidly, even spectacularly, spiraling out of the field of historic sites, and into a new, self-defined realm of history-themed leisure destinations, it was quickly getting beyond my interest as both an academic and a public historian. But I’m beginning to reverse that trend in my thinking given that CW has taken on a fresh role, one with vibrant utility and a seemingly endless production of content for current and burgeoning public historians: As the most glaring cautionary tale of modern times for museums and historic sites.  But yet another piece about the latest Tidewater foolishness–whether the collapse of CW’s commitment to any real educational endeavor, or the fact that it apparently now employs more speechwriters than historians of 18th-century Virginia–would be a waste of anyone’s time. Life is too short. It’s more important to use CW’s almost daily foibles as examples of what historic sites that strive for donor confidence, brand development and protection, and historical legitimacy should not do. In that sense, CW is providing a quite valuable service to the rest of us. So we can let the ice rink and the massive pirate M&M now standing in the Visitor’s Center speak for themselves (perhaps literally, if the M&M talks, which wouldn’t surprise me at this point).

However, when the President and CEO of CW, or maybe his senior speechwriter (a real first for any historic site I’ve ever heard of), or a junior speechwriter, decides to tout the “critical” importance of “[h]istorical authenticity” in a local newspaper–and then proceeds to not only get that history wrong but to defend it, then attention must be paid. Yes, I suppose that CW’s new Halloween programming scratches some Jungian itch, and I appreciate the writer of the piece, whoever it was, for tapping Wake Forest’s terrific Eric Wilson, a respected professor of English whose speciality is the connection of literature and psychology, for his take on Jung. But perhaps he or she should have included the title of one of Wilson’s most illuminating explorations of Jung, which seems more apt to CW’s current situation — Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.

Since the piece brings up a few specific things to defend, as “[f]anciful programming” that “draws nonetheless from a dark chapter in Williamsburg’s past,” let’s take one or two examples of this commitment to historical authenticity out for a spin, shall we? How about, “the actual trial and hangings of Blackbeard’s pirate crew here [in Williamsburg]”? As Hampton Roads’ Daily Press covered just last year, a new book by historian Kevin Duffus, based on a mountain of solid research, reveals that much we had assumed about the fate of Blackbeard’s crew was wrong.  Some of Blackbeard’s crew were held in Williamsburg’s original gaol (only traces of which still exist — the current building is almost entirely a reconstruction), but the Vice-Admiralty Court where they were tried was most likely held in Hampton, where those few who were sentenced to death were hanged and buried, not in Williamsburg. This one might be open to interpretation of the few remaining documents, even if most historians now discount the story that CW seems committed to telling for Halloween and beyond, so let’s call it a foul ball, rather than a swinging strike. Either way, it’s hardly fact and shouldn’t be scored as a hit in the historical box score.

Much more glaring is the upcoming Halloween programming in a town that never experienced it as it is presented this year. Forget “ancient Celtic traditions” (questionable) or imperative Jungian yearnings (laughable), it’s just not true, regardless of one’s interpretation of 18th-century Williamsburg, of an English, Episcopalian town culturally gripped by Enlightenment ideals, in which most inhabitants scorned anything approaching the supernatural. From the period there is only one recorded “ghost story”–that of the mysterious ringing bells of William & Mary’s Wren Building. But the best source for an understanding of Halloween, which apparently neither Mr. Reiss nor his team of speechwriters bothered to read, is CW’s own take on it: A nicely comprehensive and accessible article in the now-defunct but once quite good Colonial Williamsburg Journal, written by historian Mary Miley Theobald, author of the splendid Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, also published by CW. Her assessment could not be more clear:

Colonial Americans didn’t celebrate Halloween. They didn’t have jack-o’-lanterns either, or trick or treat, or costumes, or candy as we know it.   

Does that mean CW should ignore the modern practice of Halloween? Of course not. It is fun. Guests do like it. Moreover, there are plenty of autumnal, harvest activities in which colonial Virginians did engage that could be both engaging and authentic for guests as part of programming. And shifting the telling of ghost stories on dark nights around roaring fires, which was a Christmas tradition, up two months does not hurt anyone. Similarly, there were real trials of properly nasty people who were duly executed on Williamsburg’s gallows, and their bodies dumped into the nearby ravine, around which to build “spooky” programming.  But even the relatively modern, and wonderfully charming, Christmas programming that has long been beloved by generations of guests has not, at least to my knowledge, been subject to audacious claims of faux 18th-century authenticity, augmented by appeals to subconscious psychological needs (“[N]ow more than ever”? Really?) as accompanies the latest attempt to cover CW’s disengagement with history.

When the board brought on the new regime, I kept an open mind and was crossing my fingers for better things for CW and, more to the point, the fine interpreters and tradespersons and other staff who work there every day. In any case, it doesn’t do to make up one’s mind about things or people too quickly, if at all. But, having literally written the book on the place, I have a soft spot for those whose loyalty is, as CW’s founding visionary, the Rev. Goodwin, had hoped, to the broad view of the institution’s future and, as a public historian, critical, in a constructive sense, of the ways in which it impacts our understanding of the past–even if that impact becomes a negative one. The practice of history, public or academic, is not a popularity contest. So perhaps Mr. Reiss and his team should be true to the reality of their situation and, for that, rely even more heavily on Prof. Wilson. After all, CW is almost entirely the construction of a place that never actually existed, rather than the painstaking reconstruction of one at a particular point in its history. Architecturally speaking, it’s a best-guess mishmash of buildings from different periods and places, some built where others were, some where they were not, some to reflect other parts of the Chesapeake, with beautiful, ornamental gardens where there were actually once stables, cow pens, and pigsties. So no one from the 1700s, should they magically return today, would fully recognize the place. In that sense, if CW’s board is going to allow the new leadership to persist in publicly painting their new approach in the colors of historical legitimacy, perhaps they are being more true to the authentic nature of the place than they know. If so, Wilson’s latest book gives them a mission statement worthy of their apparent vision for it: Keep It Fake.

What Colonial Williamsburg’s Charity Navigator Downgrade to 2 Stars Does–and Doesn’t–Mean

Non-profit evaluators such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar provide a terrific service to donors and public historians alike.  Using various metrics, they cut through the weeds of the annual tonnage of reporting documents for places such as historic sites–mainly the all-important IRS Form 990–and evaluate them, using stars or other ratings, in ways that certainly seem clear and unambiguous.  And those evaluations should also be instructive to the leaders of such sites and the people they regularly ask to invest in them.  It’s one-stop shopping for anyone interested in checking out the health of an organization, particularly the ones that meet the income threshold of $1 million, and provides a critical public window into the inner working of a site. So consider Charity Navigator, my evaluator of choice, as a sort of CNBC or Wall Street Journal of the business of public history — they read the numbers so that you don’t have to.

This comes to mind because Charity Navigator just downgraded Colonial Williamsburg (CW), the largest public history site in the world, and the media’s favorite punching bag for anything related to those who make their living from dressing in historical clothing, from three stars to two (out of four).  It makes for a somewhat easy story to tell because it fits into the broadly accepted narrative that CW is in a kind of free fall into an unknown future, just as somewhat similar places seem to have tripped off a financial cliff into the abyss of wedding rentals and ghost tours.  But what has always set CW apart from other apparent cognates has been its substantial endowment, its commitment to its mission, and its willingness to embrace its role as the leader in the public history and museum studies fields, with all the slings and arrows, and tremendous opportunities, that attend it.  Its early and longstanding partnership with the College of William & Mary to create what’s now the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, which publishes the journal of record for the field of early American history, kept CW on the vanguard of academic history, just as its keen attention to material culture and architecture made it and its talented staff the beacon of expertise for museums and curators everywhere.  Like it or not, what CW did, and how it did it, mattered, especially as a bellwether of historical studies and heritage tourism, which, in my opinion, holds the single largest untapped economic potential in the entire tourism sector.

Consequently, the downgrade to two stars has generated not a little mumbling within the field that CW has finally begun an inexorable march towards its nadir–and is getting a sort of deserved comeuppance after decades of, to some observers, arrogant expansion into hospitality and investment in non-traditional innovative programming, such as the “Actor Interpreter”-driven immersive experience Revolutionary City.  That was part of a subtle but important shift in its mission “That the Future May Learn From the Past” and the core of its interpretation, from a vague colonial period, forever on the verge of the American Revolution, to “A Center for History and Citizenship” that jumped right into the founding era and a focus on the American Revolution itself and, most importantly, the ideas it continues to represent.  Out went the virtually unknown Robert Carter Nicholas and in came 25-year-old James Madison.  And now, as the members of the team that ushered in those changes have either departed willingly or more recently been ushered out, and with relatively new, untested leadership, with little to no experience in the field, in place, the downgrade is reflecting perception: CW is finally on its way out.  Charity Navigator says so.

Here’s the problem: That’s not what the downgrade actually means.  First, keep in mind that it’s an evaluation of a latest available year’s reporting documents, which aren’t usually filed until well into the following year, so it reflects a sort of financial vapor trail of 2013, rather than a snapshot of what’s going on in 2015.  Second, CW has been in this position before.  Lots of times.  Although it hasn’t had a four-star rating since 2003, CW has wavered between two and three stars ever since, earning a two-star rating seven times in the last 12 years.  So the lower rating itself isn’t news.

But here’s the bigger problem: What the numbers actually reveal.  You know, I’ve pounded the importance of deeply reading 990s, like Ted Kennedy trying to move a decent health care bill through the Senate, into every Board of Trustees, public history class, and museum director that I’ve ever been asked to counsel.  And that means reading between the lines of existing filings, comparing them to similarly situated institutions (which one should define as strictly as possible — CW is not Busch Gardens), and looking at them in historical context with past reports.  That’s where a southern friend of mine would say that things at CW get “hinky.”  In the past, CW’s ratings have been dragged down by steadily decreasing financial numbers.  That doesn’t exactly mean pure revenue, because those numbers can be fudged, if one looks closely enough.  Many institutions try to mask a high burn rate (the ratio of actual spending to budgeted amounts over the course of a fiscal year, usually reviewed monthly by an organization’s Finance Committee), and I’ve seen more than a few give it a shot, by drawing down on the principal of an endowment or, more positively, simply benefiting from an improved market, which shows up on a different 990 line (one site that I counseled even kept several million dollars in phantom collections assets on the books until I, um, strenuously explained the error).  Either way, CW’s financial rating is the lowest in its history, at 73.22 (its previous low was 76.33 in 2006). Looking at the raw data that drives the ratings makes matters worse, as Program Revenues at CW were, for 2013, at an all-time low of $38,180,000, the overall number of which was boosted by a slight tick in donations and a substantial boost from investment income.  So the rating actually could have been much, much worse.

But what does all that mean for CW today and, more importantly, for the health of heritage tourism and the livelihoods that depend on them?  One good friend of mine, who has 30-plus years of experience with CW, the Omohundro Institute, and academic history in Virginia and New England (he lives near me in Boston now), thinks that CW’s decline is representative of a broader shift, that the era of such historic sites everywhere, especially places like CW, Old Sturbridge Village, and Historic Deerfield, with such high overheads, is, frankly, over.  Post-World War II tourism has changed and segmented; heritage tourists aren’t interested in what are increasingly seen, especially when programming departs from missions, as precisely what they have long been criticized and ridiculed, incorrectly in the past, for being: Historical theme parks, with a costumed historical figure bearing no functional difference to a sweltering intern dressed up as a cartoon character, and the cringe-worthy “Try to Nail the British Soldier Cut-Out with a Rubber ‘Tommyhawk'” more or less the same as a game of “Whack-a-Mole.”  To my friend, such sites will only survive if they base their futures on their own pasts, as places that represent a more recent, nostalgic history.  After all, what one sees at CW–as it stands now–never actually looked like it does at any point in its pre-restoration history.  Its buildings, landscape, and collections represent a conglomeration of different times and tastes from across the Chesapeake, a trend that has continued with the influence of particular major donors.  The “year in history” approach in the era of colonial interpretation, in which CW took a calendar year and portrayed it for guests in real time (which I thought was pretty nifty, and kept the visitor experience fresh), and then the Revolutionary City master narrative, attempted to connect the disparate elements into a coherent guest experience, with varying degrees of success.  For example, in 1775, almost every house was painted white, the main thoroughfare was an often muddy, dirt road, and what’s been recreated as “Palace Green” was actually a wide (and, yes, muddy) boulevard.  But hardly anyone would pay for that sort of authentic experience.

Those are not criticisms but facts, so, as my friend suggests, CW and other sites might have a future by embracing that character, and the power of the memories of the people who positively experienced it in their own pasts, rather than attempting to compete for a kind of tourist–one purely out for recreation, rather than heritage–that evidence strongly suggests it will never sufficiently draw.  Smaller, and therefore potentially more nimble, historic sites that can collaborate with other sites and experiment with audiences and programming might actually be better situated to take advantage of the modern possibilities presented by heritage tourism.

I confess a great deal of sympathy for that perspective, even if I don’t yet wholly embrace it (except for the point about smaller sites, with which I’m totally on board).  CW’s current leadership is, I strongly suspect, incisive enough to recognize that its program revenue decline is precipitous and might well be permanent.  Without a drastic reorganization, that includes the shedding of almost all the hotels and restaurants (the Inn and Lodge are both splendid, and an evening in one of the Colonial Houses can be almost magical), which are a major drag on the CW budget given the tight connection between the for-profit and non-profit sides of what we collectively think of as CW, that ship cannot even begin to be righted.  But the CW brand remains strong, with quality interpreters, and the potential for generating revenue while shaping the historical understanding of a new generation of Americans in a mission-appropriate way has not yet been sacrificed (the Historic Trades, for example, remains a shining gem in CW’s interpretive crown, so to speak).  However, recent efforts to increase visitation while cutting costs on the non-profit side are not just worrying, they’re alarming, so distinctly do they smack of the sort of short-term, monthly profit-loss report decision-making that comes from, it must be said, inexperience in the field, and that will doom a public history site of any size.  A proper historical foundation for its programming, for example, appears to have gone straight out the window.  A new gecko-type “mascot” for CW–a type of dog that George Washington did not own until well after the Revolution and was never, in fact, in Williamsburg (Washington was no Charles Lee with his foxhounds, endlessly trailing after him through the Governor’s Palace in 1776)–is nothing when compared with the flabbergasting message sent to the academic community by the July 1, 2015, announcement that CW has ended its partnership with the College of William & Mary and its support for the Omohundro Institute.  Just as the creation of the Institute firmly established CW’s commitment to historical integrity, its severance declared that era to be over.  And once historical integrity is lost by an institution ostensibly based on it, then all else might be lost as well.

I don’t mean to offer this post as a eulogy to a place and group of people for whom I maintain considerable fondness.  But recent programming and other decisions are not suggestive of a sustainable, mission-oriented future on which donors can rely in terms of a sound return on their investment in public history and civic education.  Consequently, the Charity Navigator downgrade of CW does not, as Thomas Jefferson might say, signal the death knell of a storied and cherished institution, but the numbers behind it are certainly a fire bell in the night.

Board to Death: A Mild Reflection on the Quiet Threat to Cultural Institutions

In 1971, the cartoonist Walt Kelly, playing on Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous War of 1812 words, had his Pogo proclaim, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  And so it goes for cultural institutions these days, such as historic sites and universities.  Governing boards, whether known as “Trustees” or “Directors” or “Visitors” or another name, are supposed to be the safeguards of the legacies of such places and the defenders of those who preserve and promote them.  But more often than not, in my experience, they do more harm than good, so poorly do board members understand their actual roles and responsibilities.  Consequently, presidents or senior directors of cultural resources often find themselves in conflict with uninformed, even uninterested, board members and spend more time managing them—in attempting to get them to work for, rather than against, the welfare of the institution—than almost anything else.  And that’s if the director happens to be someone who wants to do more than just keep his or her job, which generally means silently suffering through a problem board’s latest wrongheaded administrative, financial, interpretative, or [insert almost any other category here] whim, so long as paychecks continue to clear.

I’m not writing of matters of minor import.  Take a look at what’s happening right now at Sweet Briar College, for example.  Its board hired a president who, within a year, announced that the school would close at the end of the current term because of supposedly insurmountable financial difficulties.  Rarely has the ignorance, if not outright malevolence, of a board in failing to fulfill its proper charge been so clearly and publicly displayed, as the president could not have proceeded, or perhaps even been hired, without the board members acting as buzzkills-in-chief in the prospective closure.  So, just like that, with breathtaking temerity, a splendid college that has done a terrific job of educating young women in Virginia for more than a century was sentenced to death, seemingly without appeal.  Of course, such a myopic and dramatic step reveals one of the more pernicious characteristics of problem boards: The inherent belief, especially amongst long-term board members, that l’institution c’est moi.  The notion that they are the institution runs strong in such boards, allowing them to feed their egos as easily as they disregard their responsibilities and ignore the basic fact that the best of places, like Sweet Briar, do have the right of appeal in the form of other entrenched, committed, and powerful stakeholders, whether they be students, staff, faculty, alumni, donors, or members, whom can and will take matters into their own hands.  The Save Sweet Briar campaign will, I trust, become a cautionary tale for problem boards everywhere. (Note: I’ve financially contributed to #SaveSweetBriar and encourage anyone who cares about higher education for women to do so, too.  Click here to make a pledge.)

Lest you think that Sweet Briar’s case is exceptional, turn your attention to other examples, such  as the University of Virginia’s board’s failed attempt to oust president Theresa Sullivan several years ago or, much more recently, to upstate New York, where another nifty little school, the College of St. Rose in Albany, is suffering through a death by at least 40, if not 1000, cuts — different in degree from Sweet Briar’s troubles, perhaps, but not in kind.  Just this week, a college president in the job for less than a year announced a major retrenchment because of the institution’s financial difficulties.  Sound familiar?  At St. Rose, 40 jobs are to be eliminated and health care coverage sliced for all employees.  The president claims that the steps, taken with the board’s nemine contradicente support, are necessary for financial reasons caused by the fact that, in a striking admission, “we have just not been attentive.”  Um, to employ the punchline of an old joke about the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean we, Kemosabe?”  If we take someone whom has been on the job only 11 months at her word, that means that the board, until recently, remained entirely ignorant of the budgetary difficulties facing the school and the new president was hired either without knowing the extent of the situation (a possibility) or with an express mandate to make cuts that a suddenly attentive board thinks are required (a probability).  It appears that, in attempting to compete in the crowded market of higher education, St. Rose quickly expanded (one presumes, also with the full support of the same board), but did so in a way that was not sustainable, necessitating the subsequent budget cuts.  Either way, as with Sweet Briar, the failure lies not with the administrator, but rests at the collective feet of a problem board, ignorant of its proper responsibilities.

The issue is not limited to colleges, of course.  Historical and other cultural organizations are hardly immune to the disease.  The famous example of the Barnes Foundation disaster should keep any cultural administrator on his or her toes.  Keep in mind that, for many current and prospective board members, being on such boards carries with it social cachet in certain circles and is therefore coveted for that very reason.  Forget that good board governance actually requires members who understand the real work that a board exists to do, from fundraising (including writing their own checks) to strategic planning, and contains more than a handful of people who are willing to approach the commitment in a thoughtful and productive way.  Those board members who see their position as valuable primarily for social and professional networking advantage represent, sadly, many of those of my acquaintance at some of the most — and more than a few of the least — prominent cultural institutions in the country.  They show up to quarterly meetings, are invariably treated like visiting royalty, and just as invariably kept as far away from the reality of the institution as they care to be, while often fed carefully crafted presentations of the institution’s situation, along with the canapés and Chardonnay.  Rarely do they truly engage with the front-line staff.  I have been part of more than one cultural organization, in fact, the boards of which had never even met the senior staff, let alone those carrying out the organization’s daily mission with guests or students.  The result is a sort of latchkey institution, left alone, without oversight or guidance from those whom are legally responsible for maintaining its legacy.  And we wonder why they struggle, and struggle, and struggle, and then fail?  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, such as the teams behind James Madison’s Montpelier, the Valentine, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Newport Restoration Foundation, and the White House Historical Association, and also among individuals, who inevitably bear the greatest burden of board committee work, but those exceptions strongly appear to prove the rule.

The main point I want to make in this not-so-thinly veiled rant is for cultural administrators of any sort, from public historians to museum directors to faculty members: Beware of the board. And get to know all you can about the ins and outs of good board governance.  If you are in a position to evaluate a cultural institution, start with the very board to whom you do or might report.  How informed are they about their roles?  How is the board organized?  What is its members’ understanding of the institution’s mission statement and strategic direction?  How much do they know about the organization’s financial position?  And, almost above all, are they willing to change if change is demonstrably needed?  Then ask yourself whether it is therefore a problem board, one that will do more harm than good in the long run, unless you first go through a rigorous process of board education (which is no fun, trust me) or, in more drastic but very real circumstances, you look at having it completely dissolved and then reconstituted along more practical and responsible lines.

In the end, as stories about failing institutions zip through the media, and senior administrators and program directors come under censure for their individual shortcomings, look closely at what you don’t see, because they hide in plain site.  Look at the people who actually hold the responsibility for protecting an institution’s best interests—which usually means to do whatever it takes to keep its legacy alive.  Look at the boards, for what your organization does not know about them could kill it.