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Monday, August 5, 2013

August 5, 2013: Back to Virginia: Jamestown Today

[Two years ago, when the boys and I last traveled to Virginia, I wrote a series of blog posts about some of the state’s AmericanStudies connections. We’re headed back to my home turf in a week, so here’s another series on Virginia histories and stories. Add your Virginian takes for a weekend post that’s for AmericanStudies lovers, y’all!]
On three historic sites that collectively illustrate our contemporary approach to the past.
Historic Jamestowne, the official historic site dedicated to the first permanent English settlement in the New World, is run by the National Park Service, as part of Virginia’s Colonial National Historical Park. As would be expected from an NPS site, Historic Jamestowne is particularly strong in two areas: grounding the area’s histories in the physical and geographic spaces, such as along the Island Loop Drive; and representing the distinct but interconnected cultures that came to occupy the area by the early 17th century, including unflinching engagements with the experiences of the first African slaves to arrive in America. If you want strong, complex, compelling interpretations of the place and its histories, the NPS site is a great place to start.
That historic site is located on the village’s original grounds—but if you want to visit a re-creation of the village and many related elements, you travel next door, to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s Jamestown Settlement museum. At this site, which closely parallels Plimoth Plantation (on which I believe it must have been at least partly modeled), visitors can visit and explore re-creations of the three ships that made the initial (1607) voyage from England, one of the first forts that those colonists built, and a Powhatan village, interacting in each case with historical interpreters who seek to bring that moment to life. The Jamestown Settlement sites are no less scholarly or interpretative than those at Historic Jamestowne, but nonetheless there are differences in presentation, tone, and explicit appeal to audience, distinctions captured by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s web address: www.historyisfun.org.
There is, of course, another kind of site through which more and more Americans access our histories—a digital kind (duh, since you’re reading this on one). And in that vein, for the 2007 400th anniversary of the English settlement scholars at Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Center for Digital History collaborated to create Virtual Jamestown, an interesting and impressive digital archive, interpretation, and community that continues to grow and evolve. As that homepage reflects, Virtual Jamestown works to include traditional historiography (such as assembling and interpreting primary archival sources), digital innovation (such as creating an interactive 3D longhouse), and a variety of other conversations (such as this brief but important blog). While a site such as this cannot replicate the experience of visiting the Jamestown historic sites, neither can they offer all that the virtual site does—meaning that the three work best as complementary, collective engagements with this place and past.
Next Virginia post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on these sites or others like them? Other Virginia connections you’d share for the weekend post?

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