Friday, January 29, 2016
January 29, 2016: Colonial Williamsburg: The Governor’s Palace Maze
[As part of our annual Virginia trip last summer, the boys and I—and AmericanStudier madre—visited Colonial Williamsburg for the first time. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some different histories and elements that are part of that complex and compelling historic site. Add your thoughts, on Williamsburg or other historic sites, in comments!]
On the disconnect and the connections fostered in Williamsburg’s most playful space.
I visited Colonial Williamsburg at least a few times in the course of my Virginia childhood, and I’m not ashamed—well, maybe slightly ashamed, but I’m working through it with the help of a good AmericanStudiesTherapist and some scholarly perspectives on the importance of childhood play—to admit that what I remember best from those visits is the hedge maze located behind the Governor’s Palace. There was something about wandering among those tall hedges that was both fun and disconcerting, part familiar childish enjoyment and part immersion in a different world than my own, and when I began planning this trip to Colonial Williamsburg with my own kids, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to the maze as well (although our annual fall visit to a local corn maze means that the disconcerting side of a hedge maze wouldn’t be quite as pronounced for them).
The maze was one of the first things we did upon arrival, and corn maze notwithstanding the boys did indeed have a blast; but I have to admit that as an adult AmericanStudier I recognized a disconnect in the space I had never noticed before. The Governor’s Palace literally and figuratively towers over the rest of Colonial Williamsburg, a building that is so different from the rest of the town in size, in architectural and artistic grandeur, and in the expanse of its grounds that it purposefully leaves no doubt about the power dynamic between a royal governor and a community of colonial citizens. That dynamic extended, of course, to the families and guests of the governors compared to those of the rest of the town; while the hedge maze is now accessible to any Colonial Williamsburg visitors, that is, it would be more accurate to the site’s history to reserve its use to only those who buy tickets to tour the Governor’s Palace. Childhood play, like every other aspect of life in Colonial Williamsburg (and, frustratingly but unquestionably, 21st century America), differed widely across the town’s and period’s class and social divisions.
I didn’t talk about any of that with my boys as they ran through the hedge maze, though. For one thing, how much of a Debbie Downer would I have to be to do that?! Even AmericanStudiers have to just have Dad fun with their kids sometimes, as my AmericanStudiesTherapist is quick to remind me. But for another thing, there’s an important historical side to their enjoyment of the maze (and mine as a kid): it connects them to those young Williamsburgers who ran through the maze three hundred years ago, reminding us of some of the essential childhood connections that endure across historical (as well as social and cultural) differences. Kids aren’t immune to the kinds of broader issues I referenced in the last paragraph, but neither are they entirely defined or limited by them—and indeed, remembering the ways in which kids can exist outside of, and thus perhaps transcend, those historical and social issues is a vital way to argue for things like early childhood education and similar policies and programs in the present. Far from being a shameful escape from history’s realities, then, a run through Colonial Williamburg’s Governor’s Palace Maze links us to an alternative and vital part of our collective pasts and identities.
January Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think?