The magic of Colonial Williamsburg, its restructuring, and “accurate-ish” history

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Ah, the proverbial “magic hour” in Colonial Williamsburg

If you have read much of this blog, you know that I am a big fan of Colonial Williamsburg. Like many people, it is a place with which I have a special connection. I’ve visited untold numbers of times over the last 25+ years, building amazing memories with friends and family. (And have had some of my most memorable dates. It’s a town of many romantic charms).

Its historical area is like a playground for those of us that love history.  In original and restored 18th century buildings, you can talk with first-person interpreters portraying colonial Americans of all classes, genders, and races, be on a jury at a witch trial, talk politics with a founding father or mother, catch an 18th century play,  enjoy a night of tavern drinks, songs, and music, or just enjoy watching the sunset on a peaceful evening in a unique environment.

Yes, much of it is cheesy, but if you “suspend your disbelief” and just embrace it,  you can feel yourself being pulled back in time, and can learn a lot. If you can just let yourself go, its nerdy and goofy fun. My friends all recall the time I got so into the moment that I got into a shouting match with Benedict Arnold! After listening to Patrick Henry rail against Britain’s latest injustice, you’ll be inspired by the fife and drum corps to fall into line and march off to defend our God given rights.

I love the place, and in fact it is one of my biggest passions.

That is why I took a special interest in today’s news that the foundation is making some big changes in order to save itself.

It’s a well-known secret that Colonial Williamsburg creates massive debt each year but keeps itself afloat by drawing on an endowment from the Rockefeller Foundation (which has funded the place since its beginning).  Over time, they have gotten directives to figure out how to reduce the debt they create each year, lowering how much they have to draw on the endowment.  Various things have been tried–restructuring, painful budget cuts, shutting down in January & February, changing their interpretive programming, altering ticketing prices and packaging, increasing their marketing campaigns—but none have solved the problem, and the endowment is rapidly depleting.

The current director has been the most aggressive at attacking the problem, but does so in rather controversial ways. There was that incredibly dumb Super Bowl ad that brought a lot of negative attention. They stopped doing interpretive programming at Historic Jamestown. They started doing Halloween programs more fit for commercial haunted houses and amusement parks (featuring a sea witch and pirate zombies, and a storyline that the director described as “accurate-ish”), and hauled in an ahistorical ice-skating rink at Christmastime (which I kind of like, given that it isn’t really in the heart of the colonial area anyway).

Most distressing, they recently restructured in a way that gutted the number of experienced professional historians working on their interpretations and training.  Native American programming is a thing of the past, and their African American programming/historian coordinator was sent packing.

The effect of this has been very noticeable, and it happened rather quickly. In the past, the interpreters in the buildings and in the streets, as well as the “people of the past” (first-person interpreters) were a fine set of well trained guides that knew their stuff. I enjoyed getting into deep conversations with the first-person interpreters to see just how deep their knowledge was, and I was rarely disappointed. I’ve lobbed some tough questions at them over the years, and they usually handled them quite well. Yet, during my last couple of visits after the restructuring, they have not lived up to those standards. It has become obvious that many have a very surface-level knowledge base, at best.

(Not all, however. There are still many old faces around that know their stuff. The gentlemen portraying Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, for just one example, have been around for a long while, and both are simply amazing at what they do.)

Further, the institute cut ties with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, an organization that was publishing and supporting original and important historical research (they still do, just without help from CW). Most recent, former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was added to the Colonial Williamsburg Board of Trustees, raising eyebrows in many circles.

To me, the best time of day at Colonial Williamsburg is night, when the streets are alive with torchlight and lanterns, and plenty of evening programs. Sadly, the diversity of these programs, their educational value, as well as the acting talent in them, has been reduced noticeably. And I even feel the quality of the food being served in the wonderful colonial taverns has gone down considerably.

And those ticket prices, particularly for a one-day visit, are still WAY too high. How many people show up, see the prices, and decide to just forgo the tickets and the benefits they bring, (such as actually getting to tour the buildings and enjoy the daily programs), to just simply walk the streets? I am guessing it’s a lot.

Please don’t get me wrong. Colonial Williamsburg is still one of my favorite places to be, and there are still some wonderful and highly educational things going on. One of the neat new things they have done lately, for example, involves being active on social media, and posting short, fun, and sometimes live videos.  It’s just that the bar they set in the past is high, and they are not living up to it lately.

The big news today is that they are outsourcing the management of many of their non-interpretive history operations, such as their golf courses, retail stores, and maintenance. It is hoped this means they will be able to focus all energy and the endowment’s financial resources back on their main mission, which is to maintain and interpret the historical area and museums. It is probably a sound decision. (Though I hate to hear that this means the Kimball Theater is closing its doors).

It sounds great that they are going to focus solely once again on their interpretive and educational mission. Yet,  based on the Halloween goofiness, and lack of professional historians experienced as trainers, I am really worried that when this current director starts putting more of his attention on interpretation, it is going to degrade even more rapidly in quality. Will programs become more about the show, than the history?

Will interpretation become “accurate-ish” in the name of providing entertainment?

Along with their press announcement today, Colonial Williamsburg sent out blurbs from local leaders praising the decision. I think they are all probably correct, this was a tough financial call that had to be made to save the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

But I also have to wonder, if the foundation did go under, would the National Park Service step in? I have more faith in their abilities and focus on interpretation than I do a businessman making decisions based mainly on financial concerns. Of course it is not like the National Park Service has unlimited funds, so I am not altogether certain how feasible that is. But let us not kid ourselves into believing that if the foundation fails, Colonial Williamsburg and its amazing interpretive resources would just vanish. Someone would take things over, and that might be for the better. I dunno.

Anyway, all this is just my two cents from someone that loves Colonial Williamsburg, has spent a ton of money there over the last 25 years, and who wants to see its quality return to the high standards it set in its glory days.

Perhaps this decision will do that. Time will tell.

Viva Colonial Williamsburg!

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2 thoughts on “The magic of Colonial Williamsburg, its restructuring, and “accurate-ish” history

    • Indeed, and helps to reinforce the point that perhaps Williamsburg would be in better shape if the foundation did fail, and the place were taken over by someone else.

      Like

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