Reappraisal of Methods and Techniques
Colin G. Campbell
The re-creation of history takes different forms, from the street scenes of the Revolutionary City to the guest artist series.
Colonial Williamsburg resulted from inspiration and idealism. Embracing a rising preservation ethic in America—contributing, in turn, to an enduring standard—the Foundation led the unprecedented reemergence of an 18th-century Virginia community and drew the attention of the world.
But realization of the dream—sustaining Colonial Williamsburg for close to a century and fulfilling those lofty ideals—requires constant reappraisal of methods and techniques of historic interpretation. Constant experimentation with other initiatives, too, assures that the Colonial Williamsburg experience remains meaningful to people’s lives. We affirm the original working assumption—that the future may learn from the past—but how we get there must be continuously tested.
Or, to put it another way, for the Foundation to have a future telling the story of America’s past, we cannot be indifferent to America’s present.
This is why there are creative forces moving within the Foundation and why your support, at this time, has been so valuable. Your passion for what we do was very evident in 2012.
Overall, 2012 gift commitments totaled $63.7 million, a 59 percent increase over 2011. More than 109,000 donors representing all 50 states contributed. Of these gifts, the Colonial Williamsburg Fund received $14.8 million. We are very gratified to see that more than 18,400 of those who contributed were first-time donors.
Philanthropy makes what we do possible. Therefore, stewardship of your investment is vitally important. On that score, our endowment produced a return of 13.1 percent and reached a value of $735 million at the end of 2012. Those impressive results we attribute to the distinguished work of Investure, the Foundation’s investment manager.
Many good and encouraging things happened in 2012. The year embraced a wide range of innovative and successful “one foundation” initiatives designed to enrich the guest experience. We are clearly on the right path, fulfilling our important mission. We are more convinced than ever that our strategy of appealing to new audiences, while preserving our traditional support, is the way to move forward. However, the economy, which shapes consumer confidence, remains a challenge for tourism generally. Its impact on discretionary spending, as well as transportation challenges in this region and competitive forces overall, contributed to a slight decline in our ticket sales last year.
Current conditions only add to our determination to produce better operating results and aggressively dissect the whys and wherefores of traveling choices. In that respect, Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City plays an increasingly important role.
First, the Revolutionary City injects life into our streets. Democracy’s inherent tensions—between freedom and equality, unity and diversity, law and ethics, private wealth and common wealth—have endured through our national history to this day. Our programs reflect these tensions and are designed to be more interactive, more dynamic, and more engaging. They are intended to help bridge the distance between present Americans and their nation building ancestors.
We often see visitors react viscerally to Revolutionary City stories. They are moved by them. That helps confirm our larger goal of establishing Colonial Williamsburg as a center for history and citizenship. Visitors increasingly perceive Colonial Williamsburg as a working, relevant, and engaging connection to their nation’s past and the democratic values it represents.
Commentators have noticed the changes.
“If your ideas about the place are based on that grade-school trip you took with your grandparents, I can assure you that the effect is pretty different now,” wrote critic Andrew O’Hehir, after bringing his family to Colonial Williamsburg in April.
“This conceptual reimagining, which has involved considerable collaboration with academic historians, seems to have accelerated rapidly since ‘Revolutionary City’ was first introduced in 2006.”
Indeed, it has.
We want to bring our visitors, as Mr. O’Hehir puts it, “face to face with the internal conflicts and contradictions of the Revolutionary War era and their ripple effects across politics and society today.”
Because, in so doing, it makes “nearly the whole place [feel] like a teachable moment,” in Mr. O’Hehir’s well-considered phrasing, “from the time you leave the Visitor Center over a footbridge that nominally takes you backward into the past.”
This effort to draw America’s formative years more closely to the present must, of course, be emotionally and intellectually appealing. That is why I urge you to examine Colonial Williamsburg’s newest publication: The Idea of America: How Values Shaped Our Republic and Hold the Key to Our Future.
Written by the Royce R. and Kathryn M. Baker Vice President of Productions, Publications, and Learning Ventures Bill White and his colleagues, this important book captures the intellectual underpinnings of our programming both in the Historic Area and through educational outreach. Again, we are getting the reaction we seek.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood reviewed The Idea of America and called it “a superb account of American life through the centuries.” Historian Carol Berkin described it as a remarkable civics lesson for all Americans. And former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine says that “rarely, if ever, has anything been written that examines the fundamental dilemmas faced by our nation as starkly or as readably as does The Idea of America.”
In June, we took another step forward, with a new version of the Revolutionary City, some aspects of which were already in place. Imaginatively designed by Vice President for Research and Historical Interpretation Jim Horn and his staff, this one-day experience will produce an even stronger sense of life within a revolutionary-charged 18th-century community.
For instance, it links taverns and shops more closely to the Revolutionary City experience, removing interpreters from the doorways (where they have been obliged to check tickets and passes) and locating them in the streets to interact with guests more naturally. Our objective is to recreate a lively, functioning community where daily activities and commerce are increasingly infused with the spirit of revolution. There will be major events such as angry colonists determined to storm the Governor’s Palace and the reading of the Declaration of Independence, along with smaller scenes and spontaneous street encounters with 18th-century citizens.
We will create an authentic streetscape as a backdrop to the dramatic events that unfold, from the collapse of the British regime to the emergence of a new republican society and the prelude to victory at Yorktown.
Likewise, we will more effectively connect our guests at the Inn, Lodge, and Colonial Houses to Revolutionary City activities, providing them behind-the-scenes tours and offering them opportunities to spend time with expert staff and historical characters. Tavern entertainment will also be more directly linked to Revolutionary City stories, providing continuity and richness to the experience.
Further contributing to the sense of action and immediacy this summer will be the third episode of “RevQuest: Save the Revolution.” Entitled “The Black Chambers” and grounded in actual events, this engaging experience incorporates technology, something that younger generations look for these days.
RevQuest has been a big hit for us, and its popularity, not only with young audiences, but also with their older siblings and parents, again indicates that we have things moving in the right direction.
The new Revolutionary City is the centerpiece of the Foundation’s history and citizenship initiative, perhaps one of the most important developments in our long efforts to effectively fulfill our mission and connect with the traveling public.
But we have learned by experience that we must reach out and embrace the world in a myriad of substantive ways.
In that latter category, few initiatives have shown more early promise than a new series of international conferences known as the Williamsburg-CSIS Forum. The forum is the result of a partnership with the Center for Strategic and International Studies—a preeminent Washington, D.C. think tank—and the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary.
Held in April, the first forum brought to Williamsburg a politically diverse group of active participants in the ongoing effort to form a new, sustainable government in post-revolutionary Egypt. With U.S. authorities and specialists on the Middle East also participating, the forum explored the dramatic events of the Arab Spring and Egypt’s difficult political path forward.
One American participant, former Marine General Anthony Zinni, is an acknowledged authority on the Middle East. He told the Virginia Gazette that “the Williamsburg-CSIS Forum is a superb effort to bring important issues to a community where democracy and self-determination were debated and demanded.”
And that, of course, is the whole idea. The Williamsburg-CSIS Forum seeks to engage difficult governing issues by using America’s own revolutionary history and struggles to perfect self-government as a frame of reference. The next forum, to be held this fall, will focus on federalism and address political and economic challenges confronted by European nations, again in the context of the American experience.
In a similar vein, we have inaugurated a new speaker series that draws on American history to frame contemporary governing challenges. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham treated a large and enthusiastic audience in May to a wonderful hour of insight into the life and ways of Thomas Jefferson, the subject of his newest best-seller.
In June, journalist Arianna Huffington, herself a naturalized citizen, spoke on Flag Day during Colonial Williamsburg’s annual naturalization ceremony.
In September, New York Times columnist David Brooks will discuss the role of Williamsburg as an arsenal of democracy. Connecting with our theme for the fall of “Safeguarding Democracy,” the program will culminate in November with the grand opening of the completed Armoury, Blacksmith, and Tin Shop—the only one of its kind in America. Raleigh Tavern Society Life Member and Colonial Williamsburg Trustee Forrest Mars made this outstanding project possible, thereby introducing to the Historic Area a new component of life in 18th-century Virginia: Williamsburg as an arsenal of democracy.
Without question, the pace of activity at Colonial Williamsburg continues to accelerate and does so by design, especially when it comes to matters of scholarly interest.
I hope many of you have been able to see the exhibit “Painters and Paintings in the Early American South.” With its accompanying catalogue, this represents the culminating Colonial Williamsburg work of Juli Grainger Curator Carolyn Weekley. The exhibit brilliantly examines the complex ways in which the lives of artists, clients, and subjects of paintings connected in the early American South. The research, its publication, and the exhibit, which opened March 23rd at the DeWitt Wallace Museum, were all underwritten by The Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest, Illinois.
Another exceptional publication, Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America, 1700–1830, along with the exhibition of the same name now at the DeWitt Wallace Museum, is the work of John R. Watson, conservator of mechanical arts and associate curator of musical instruments. It was underwritten in part by Dordy and Charlie Freeman of Stone Mountain, Georgia.
The author uses the remarkable Colonial Williamsburg collection to explore instrument design, regional and political influences, and the competition among instrument makers and merchants, documenting both the changes in those instruments and their uses, as well as the developing keyboard culture of America. Changing Keys is a rich contribution to the study of 18th-century and early 19th-century American music.
Another source of great pride to us all is The Chesapeake House. Authored by Colonial Williamsburg’s distinguished scholars, current and retired, edited by Cary Carson and Carl Lounsbury, and generously supported by nine donors, The Chesapeake House represents more than two decades of the study of early houses in Williamsburg and the Chesapeake region.
Much of the fieldwork on which the chapters are based was carried out to answer specific questions of restoration and reconstruction in the Historic Area. The broader purpose of this book is to offer comprehensive interpretation of how different Virginians and Marylanders built and altered their houses from 1607 into the early 19th century—and how those houses molded people’s lives.
The Chesapeake House is the first publication to present a broad range of that material, and its historical interpretation, for the benefit of general readers and scholars. It is a truly handsome volume and, like the work of Carolyn Weekley and John Watson, a major contribution to the field.
From 18th-century scholarship to current events to revolutionary street authenticity, we have made it our goal to establish Colonial Williamsburg as an intellectually and emotionally vital community—a community that makes its history immediate, meaningful, and moving. Thanks to your support, we are getting it done. The Foundation remains as idealistic and inspired as ever.
Colin G. Campbell
President and Chief Executive Officer