As a leading scholar of the Enlightenment, George Wythe was often content alone in his study reading a book. But even he might have had his limits when it came to social distancing. Colonial Williamsburg Nation Builder Robert Weathers recently portrayed the Founding Father as less than enthralled with keeping only his own company. He looks forlorn as he peers out the window hoping to find someone to talk to during stay-at-home times.
The video, posted to Facebook, is one of many created by Colonial Williamsburg for its social media platforms, website and new television channel, all part of an expanded outreach effort for people to experience the Historic Area from afar. Many of the posts are lighthearted, like Wythe’s, and many more are both entertaining and educational.
Colonial Williamsburg’s digital outreach effort preceded the coronavirus, but the closure of the Historic Area made it a greater priority. “It has been part of our strategic plan to increase media content,” said Beth Kelly, the Foundation’s vice president of Education, Research and Historical Interpretation. “With the first hint of possible closure, my team began collaborating with Marketing to produce more content.”
Since the Historic Area closed in mid-March, Colonial Williamsburg has more than doubled its social media posts to 75 a week. Popular and relevant older posts are reappearing also. Together, these have attracted nearly 5,000 new followers, bringing Colonial Williamsburg’s total following on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to more than 333,000.
And these followers are actively engaging with the content: They are not just watching it but commenting on it, saying how much they enjoy it, sharing it with their friends and asking questions.
The social media experiments have included live conversations in which those connecting with Colonial Williamsburg can pose questions to interpreters, including such Nation Builders as Thomas Jefferson, Gowan Pamphlet and Clementina Rind. Live streams have included tradespeople, musicians, curators, conservators and others.
Popular posts from tradespeople include Historic Foodways interpreter Frank Clark demonstrating an 18th-century recipe for making carrots and French beans “dressed in the Dutch way,” apothecary Mark Henley considering how the coronavirus might have been treated during colonial times, and master cabinetmaker Bill Pavlak sharing his knowledge about a reproduction 18th-century tool chest made in the shop. The chest, Pavlak quipped, was a form of social distancing, since keeping tools in a chest was another way of saying, “Keep your hands off my stuff.”
Scholars go beyond the barriers to look at places and objects that guests to the Historic Area normally can’t see up close — or at all. Amanda Keller, associate curator of historic interiors, takes online visitors on a virtual tour of the small office behind the public dining room in Wetherburn’s Tavern and studies several antiques on Mr. Wetherburn’s desk. Jack Gary, director of archaeology, looks at artifacts from the excavation of Custis Square, once the property of John Custis IV, one of the richest men in the Williamsburg of early America. Matthew Webster, director of the Grainger Department of Architectural Preservation and Research, heads down to the cellar of Charlton’s Coffeehouse to examine the building’s construction.
“We’re taking people behind the scenes,” Webster said. “Social media gives us an opportunity to dive deeper into topics.”
Colonial Williamsburg’s posts hit all the favorite social media categories. There are cute little newborn lambs. There are how-tos, like American Indian interpreter Talon Silverhorn shooting a bow and arrow. And there are exercise videos, in this case David Catanese as Robert Prentis venturing out from his store on Duke of Gloucester Street to demonstrate the proper way to limber up before fencing. Prentis promptly pulls a muscle.
“We’re working diligently to surface diverse content that will reflect the diverse stories we tell on-site,” said Sarah Lockwood, Colonial Williamsburg’s content marketing manager.
Traffic on Colonial Williamsburg’s new website, colonialwilliamsburg.org, has also increased, in part thanks to the social media posts that direct viewers there. After the Historic Area closed temporarily for the pandemic, website traffic increased by 17%. A month after the March closure, the site’s Explore from Home page had drawn nearly 50,000 visits. The page highlights resources for teachers along with blog posts, videos, coloring pages, virtual tours, scenic drone footage and more.
Some of this programming is also appearing on Colonial Williamsburg’s new streaming channel, which launched in April. The channel, which is free on enabled devices, can be found in the educational category on Amazon Fire TV and Roku TV. Programs range from brief introductions to untold stories to 20- to 30-minute field trips. The Freedom Quest of Oney Judge, for example, tells the story of a young woman, enslaved to George and Martha Washington, who escaped to the North.
Creating new content in a period of social distancing can be challenging. “Some of our sound was a bit off with the beginning of this, but we are getting better,” Kelly said. “Out of nowhere we found we have tradespeople who happen to be video producers and editors, and we have actors who are writing scripts and producing videos, and musicians writing original scores.”
The focus on social media was already a long-term strategy. The closure of the Historic Area made it more urgent to move quickly and has provided lessons for how to increase the Foundation’s social media presence. “We will find new ways to reach our audience and teach them about our remarkable 18th-century counterparts,” Kelly said.
Image: Martha Washington interpreter Katharine Pittman turns videographer for a story with Nicole Brown, filmed at Bruton Parish Church (below). (Katie Appel/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)