What’s new at some of my favorite public history sites?

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My nephews and me enjoying the Springhouse Tavern on our recent visit to Williamsburg

So it has been a bit since my last post because I have been on a history site trip with my nephews and brother over the last week. I am home now, but before I get back to posting about history related news, I thought I would change things up a bit by posting quick reviews/assessments of the public history sites we visited. I have been to all of them MANY times, but it was the first time for my nephews, and some things have recently changed, so I’ll confine most of my comments to what I noticed was new. Just some brief thoughts:

Monticello was as beautiful as ever and their fairly new visitor’s center plaza is a nice start to your time there. The film was new since my last visit, and it does a pretty good job of reviewing his life and legacy. It was celebratory, of course, but it also briefly discussed Sally Hemings, stating that “many historians now believe” he fathered children with her. The film ended by noting that we, nor Jefferson himself, have fully lived up to his  ideals/rhetoric about equality, but that our story slowly bends in that direction (footage of Obama’s inauguration even makes an appearance). The house tour was the standard one they have been giving for years, and it too included a discussion about Hemings, but what stood out the most on this recent visit was the amount of references to the other Hemingses at Monticello. It is clear that they are doing much to include this “privileged” slave family’s story into the Monticello experience. Very appropriate. I also noticed that the walking path to Jefferson’s grave has been routed in a way that ensures that visitors can only reach it by walking down Mulberry Row and the slave interpretation there.  I found it amusing, however, that our guide mentioned the new popularity of Jefferson’s nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. (She was not the only guide on our trip to do so, but more on that later). Afterwards, we hit the very touristy but convenient Michie Tavern for lunch, and it was a hit with my nephews. Love that chicken!

Next up was Gettysburg. Man, they have really done some work up there over the last few years restoring the historic landscape by clearing trees, and it seems like every time I go (which is about every-other-year) the place has changed in some way. The most obvious thing that stood out this time is that the Civil War Trust has obtained the building that served as Lee’s headquarters, taking it away from the Quality Inn that had owned and “interpreted” it for many, many years. The hotel has been leveled and the parking lot removed, thank goodness, and the building (which was home to a widow named Mary Thompson at the time of the battle) now stands alone. Work was in progress (click that link above and check out the slide show), and I fully expect that next time I visit, the building and grounds will be part of the tour and have solid NPS interpretation. My other observation is that the middle of May  was a perfect time to be there! Gettysburg was lovely as always, but the temps were very mild and the traffic was incredibly light. I’ve never been able to drive around town and through the park so easily. As usual, I made it a point to eat at the Springhouse Tavern (which is in the cellar of the Dobbin’s House restaurant). The french onion soup there is amazingly good, and never disappoints! It was another big hit with my nephews, with one of them declaring it “the coolest restaurant I’ve ever been to.” The building was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and they have long had a small display there recreating a secret chamber where runaways were hidden in the building. I wondered if they have seen more interest in this after the airing of WGN’s Underground.

After a brief side trip to Hershey’s Chocolate World (zzzzz) we made our way to Mount Vernon. Our time there was ruined by rain and especially by the large crowd of student groups that came through that day. Do not go there in May! The house tour utilizes the very ineffective setup of having a guide in each room, rather than one tour guide that takes you through as a group. The large, loud, and distracted student groups going through made for a pretty miserable experience (to be fair, with their enormous crowds it is probably the most effective thing they can do). The only thing new I encountered was a short intro film (featuring Pat Sajak, of all people), and another one with some pretty impressive Hollywood-quality production values that focuses on Washington’s meeting of Martha, his participation in Braddock’s Campaign in the Seven Years War (a thrilling battle scene), and his decision to attack at Trenton on Christmas 1776. Do not fail to visit the Reynolds museum. This was my second time in it (it is still relatively new) and it is a top-notch facility with a really good “4D” film presentation and three life-sized figures of George Washington that were created ten years ago using cutting edge forensics. (The result is very stunning).  While there, I noticed that the guides were wearing “George Washington for President” campaign pins, so I hunted one down in the gift shop. I will be wearing it a lot in the coming months as a statement about him and the top two candidates we have this fall.
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The last stop was Virginia’s “Historic Triangle” of Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg. This area on the Virginia Peninsula is pretty much my favorite place in the world, so it is tough for me to be objective. At Jamestown, the latest excitement is the discovery of the first church there, which included the bodies of 4 early leaders of the colony and was the site of John Rolfe and Pocohontas’ marriage. This news broke last summer, but they have good interpretation of it now. We took a tour with a young lady that works on the archeological project and she did an amazing job. (I wish I had gotten her name). Over at Yorktown, we took a ranger tour (always take the ranger tours!) with another very gifted public historian (I also failed to get her name). While discussing Hamilton’s famous leadership of the attack on redoubt #10, she mentioned the Broadway musical and explained that they have had school groups coming in now specifically asking about Hamilton because their teachers had used the soundtrack in class. There is a song on it about Yorktown that gets some facts wrong, but, as the ranger noted, anything that gets kids curious about history is a good thing.

Last was Colonial Williamsburg. As we know, they have been making some strange decisions there lately, so I was curious to see if things have noticeably changed. This pains me to say, but the biggest thing I observed was a very large drop in acting talent among the “people of the past,” as well as on the tours and evening programs. There were a lot of new faces, so it makes me wonder if they have lost some of their talent because of recent decisions. The new “Pirate Trial” was a good time (nephews loved it), but it deviates little from the formula of the famous “Witch Trial” that has been a Williamsburg standard for many decades. They also now have the Capitol, Courthouse, Magazine, and Governor’s Palace lit up at night, which is visually appealing, but definitely detracts from the historic setting. Ticket prices are still ridiculously too high, and that is especially true for their newest attraction–the chance to load and fire a flintlock musket. The $119 price tag for that experience is a bit outrageous (Ozzy Osbourne and his son have recently indulged in it for a new show on History channel). Otherwise, Colonial Williamsburg is as magical and charming as ever. In the last ten yeas or so, their slave interpretation programs have been especially strong, so I was glad to see a larger number of African American visitors than I have noticed in the past. (Still, as with most history sites, the crowds were mostly white. But that public history topic/problem/challenge is too big for this posting).

So there is what I noticed on my recent visit to some of my favorite historic sites. My nephews had a blast, and getting to show them these places for the first time was a thrill. So get out there with your families this summer and indulge in our amazing public history sites! And ALWAYS take the tours with the public historians you encounter along the way!

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One thought on “What’s new at some of my favorite public history sites?

  1. Rob, thanks for responding. I should stress that I have been to Mount Vernon many times before, and this was the first unpleasant experience that I have had. It was just a bad day with the combo of rain and a HUGE amount of school groups. I would recommend that you guys figure out some way to separate school groups from the general public when going through the line. That might help tremendously.

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