I associate Colonial Williamsburg with the development of the Living History movement to present our colonial and early national heritage. I shall not claim to have researched this movement, but my earliest memories of Colonial Williamsburg is from our family’s “Historical East Coast Tour” in 1975. That’s pretty well ancient history in itself in today’s digital society. At that time, I remember Colonial Williamsburg to be preserved and restored buildings with tradesmen of the time demonstrating how blacksmiths, gunsmiths, milliners, et al. worked. But, that period was part of the progression of the Living History movements, which has continued to evolve over the past 40 years.
The origins of Colonial Williamsburg goes back nearly a century now. The Reverend Goodwin had the vision of preserving historic buildings, of which the then sleepy town of Williamsburg had many clustered around the Bruton Parish Church where he presided. Reverend Goodwin found a financial backer in John D. Rockefeller, who held a similar vision about the value of preserving the images of our country’s past before it rotted in the humid South’s weather, or was razed by development pressures.
Williamsburg, the seat of government in the largest of the colonies, Virginia; The College of William and Mary, one of the oldest institutions of learning from that era; Jamestown Island, the site of the oldest settlement by the English corporations, just a few miles west; Yorktown, the site of the siege and surrender of the English army in 1781. These were the concentration of places and events that could bring a focus to our nation’s origins.
Initially, Reverend Goodwin and Mr. Rockefeller intended to purchase, repair and rebuild selected structures to preserve the architectural view of the area. We took a morning walking tour of four gardens on the eastern side of what is now Colonial Williamsburg one morning. The docent explained the development from this architectural plan in the 1920’s and 1930’s to the development of gardens after WW II. This was the period of Colonial Revival Style. These gardens were less concerned with historical accuracy than presenting a pleasing view of the houses and businesses. These were mostly ornamental, or “pleasure”, gardens using plants that might have been used at the time, or which complemented the spaces around the buildings.
The living history movement probably grew out of the 1960’s re-enactment movement. The 1960’s and 1970’s found history buffs forming military units to practice marching and drilling, and carrying out various battles from the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and Civil War eras. As I mentioned, when I first visited Colonial Williamsburg, I recall watching re-enacters demonstrating trades of the time. The buildings were coming alive.
Living historians began to progress from providing information about the past to modern audiences, to acting out roles and scenes from the period. Upon our more recent visits to Colonial Williamsburg over the past decade, we have enjoyed watching the staged events, such as the Revolutionary City programs each day. Or, we have attended “Conversations” with patriots, ministers, slaves, et al., at which a 20 minute presentation occurs, then 20 minutes of open questions. I call these “Stump the Interpreter” events, for those of us who are history buffs who want to see whether we can ask questions that might baffle the interpreters.
During out morning walk, I has posed the question to the docent of how this progression from persevering Architecture, to the Colonial Revival Style, to the Living History movement had occurred. Meanwhile, I also pondered, to myself, how this history is beholden to the interpretive biases of the funding philanthropists, grant agencies, and expectations of the audiences. While Colonial Williamsburg searches historic documents and archeological digs for evidence to support what it does, I do wonder how biases creep into the presentation. As our docent talked, I looked over her shoulder. A man in historic farmer’s dress brought two bulls next to a barn in the distance. I watched as he groomed the bulls. What colonial era farmer would have had the time to groom bulls? Or, is these our expectations that bulls lead down Duke of Gloucester Street (aka DOG Street) be neat and pretty? Later, I noticed women engaged in tasks that I would have not expected women to do: carriage driver and blacksmith. I inquired at the blacksmith shop: Yes, women were employed, as well as slaves, children, apprentices, and journeymen in the blacksmith shop.
Living history is a step back into time. It is a means of engaging us in learning about that past. I wonder, with this progression of styles of presentation, where it will go in the decades to follow. I see several possible paths. I hope that additional, objective historic research will guide the process. But, I fear that two other paths may dominate. Should large donors have agenda’s about how we view our nation’s origins or contemporary political correctness, that history could be co-opted to subtly influence our understanding. Should audiences expect to be entertained, the history could be simplified to not offend with political correctness.
Living history takes us out of our time briefly. But, our history is ongoing. After our day of conversations with interpreters, participating in military drilling exercises, donning of colonial dress, we stepped across the street from Colonial Williamsburg to the DOG Street Tavern for dinner. On the large screen TV’s ESPN was showing images of the blast impact and plume of smoke from the bombings at the Boston Marathon two hours earlier. As re-enactment with black powder and no shot is representative, live bombs maim and kill people. History is real. Living is real. Do not be bystanders, ignorant of the past or present.