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An Object Lesson

NIAHD celebrates 20 years of teaching students to interpret historic places and material culture

As entertainment curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Ryan Lintelman studies objects and plans exhibits related to the history of television, theater and movies. His introduction to that type of study came with the inspection of a very different object — a colonial pipe that archaeologists had uncovered in Williamsburg.

Lintelman’s grounding for his work came between 2005 and 2009 when he was a student at the National Institute of American History & Democracy (NIAHD), a joint program of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg that started in 2002.

He and hundreds of other students who passed through the NIAHD program were introduced to the value of studying tools, utensils, weapons and even machines and buildings and then telling their stories in approachable ways that engage the general public in history.

Many of NIAHD’s alumni, like Lintelman, have pursued careers where they can demonstrate to audiences at museums and elsewhere how much can be gleaned from carefully looking at objects from the past.

“A colonial pipe has stories to tell,” Lintelman said. “It’s connected to themes and trends and peoples and human emotions and experiences, and it helps us tell a complex story.”

A Cooperative Venture

The program grew out of discussions between historians at Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary, all of whom had an interest in public history and material culture.

“A number of people at both institutions were talking about how to take advantage of all the resources in the area,” said Julie Richter, who was then a Colonial Williamsburg historian and is now NIAHD’s director.

Congressional awards of $1.4 million got the program off the ground.

“When we began, public history was just coming to the fore,” said Jim Whittenburg, a William & Mary professor of history who became NIAHD’s first director. William & Mary, in cooperation with Colonial Williamsburg, offered an archaeology experience through the anthropology department, and the history department offered apprenticeship programs in museum management, historical archaeology, archives management and scholarly editing.

“These served as something of a model,” Whittenburg said, “for the new NIAHD program.”

NIAHD’s Pre-College Program in American History, a summer program for high school students, launched in the summer of 2002, and classes for college and graduate students began that fall.

The initial curriculum was divided into two types: “Input” classes covered artifacts, architecture, topography and written documents, and “output” classes focused on ways knowledge of the past could be presented, in places as varied as museums and movies. Though NIAHD classes are no longer formally divided in this way, the program still employs the idea behind those classifications.

The curriculum has changed to keep up with the times. Today’s students, for example, might learn about the ground-penetrating radar being used to excavate the site of Williamsburg’s 18th-century Black church. Archaeologists in 2002 did not have access to that technology.

After the congressional award money ran out, NIAHD worked to become self-sustaining, said Carolyn Whittenburg, who became the program’s director in 2005. Tuition and support from alumni, parents, students and several foundations have kept the program going.

How Places Shaped Lives

One aspect of the curriculum that has not changed is its focus on studying specific places, in particular — though not exclusively — the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg. “What makes a NIAHD class is thinking about where history happened,” Richter said, “and how these places shaped the ways in which people lived their lives.”

Philippe Halbert came to NIAHD’s Pre-College Program in 2005, continued as a William & Mary student and, in 2019, became a Pre-College Program instructor. He recalled that for Professor David Brown’s course on the Jamestown era the class went to Jamestown Beach. There, they discussed 1619, the year the first Africans set foot in Virginia.

“There was something really moving and compelling about just being there and sitting by the James River as we were tasked with imagining what those people saw 400 years before,” Halbert said. “Professor Brown’s emphasis on place is something that I’ve really taken to heart in my own research. I’m inspired to really set the scene in as vivid a way as possible in my own scholarship.”

Grace M. Ford-Dirks, who came to William & Mary and NIAHD in 2017 and graduated in 2021, remembered piling into a van to travel to museums and historic sites across Virginia for Jim Whittenburg’s class on Virginia in the age of the Revolution.

“While I’ve always loved studying history, my NIAHD classes introduced me to the study of material culture and taught me that places and objects could be understood as historical evidence too. We began and ended the class at Colonial Williamsburg, where we were reminded of the resources we had close by,” said Ford-Dirks, now a Lois F. McNeil Fellow at the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

Working with Experts

From the start, hands-on experience was a key part of the program. Students work with Colonial Williamsburg curators, interpreters, tradespeople and other experts, providing valuable experience to the students and valuable help to Colonial Williamsburg. Like all good internships, the program helps both the students and the Foundation.

For example, in the spring of 2021, students in an early American architecture class assisted architectural historian Carl Lounsbury in documenting details of the Bray-Digges House, which in the 18th century housed a school for enslaved and free Black children. Those details, including some from the early 20th century when the building housed the first women to attend William & Mary, would otherwise have been lost in the restoration. 

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