[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 compelling interpretations, and important absence, at my boys’ two favorite sites.
Colonial Williamsburg has a striking number of historic sites and spaces spread out over its 173 acres, most of which feature on-site costumed interpreters (ones not limited, in their conversations with visitors, to the knowledge and perspectives of the historical moment they’re portraying, like those at Plimoth Plantation are, but nonetheless seeking in both their physical appearance and actions and their voices and words to recreate the late 18th century). Which sites are open and which feature interpreters varies from day to day and season to season, making the site especially worth return visits to explore different sides of its many streets and sections. On our late August 2015 visit, as you might expect, my then 9 and 8 year old sons were particularly drawn to two such sites and interpretations: the Magazine, which recreates the arsenal at which the controversial and crucial 1775 Gunpowder Incident occurred; and the Public Goal, which portrays the early 18th century prison built shortly after Williamsburg became the colony’s capital in 1699.
These two sites, and the interpreters we encountered at each, were especially good at presenting the material culture side to their histories in compelling depth. The interpreter at the Magazine used its collection of historic flintlocks and muskets, swords and pikes, cannons and shot, and other artifacts of war to discuss multiple historical periods: not only the Revolution and its military histories, but also the French & Indian War and even Bacon’s Rebellion, linking each conflict and era to the different weaponry involved in a way that certainly kept my sons’ interest throughout. At the Gaol we listened to two complementary interpreters: a woman outside the building who highlighted the cases of a number of differnet prominent 18th century prisoners; and a man inside who guided us through the spaces provided for both the prisonkeeper and his family and those reserved for the building’s less fortunate inhabitants. Both of these Gaol interpreters made sustained and excellent use of the building’s and site’s architecture to help frame for us its identity and roles, its evolution across the 18th century, and how this dark side of Colonial Williamsburg would have been experienced by all the town’s residents.
Yet in truth, at neither of these sites did these otherwise compelling interpreters quite engage with the darkest sides to the histories represented therein. More than any other spaces at Colonial Williamsburg, that is, the Magazine and Gaol depended for their existence on definitions of us and them—and indeed, I would argue that in creating and sustaining visions of threatening others (those whom the town would need the Magazine’s weapons in order to defend itself and those outside of the town’s laws and in need of remanding to the Gaol, respectively), these two sites went a long way toward creating a communal identity for the burgeoning Williamsburg populace. I know that a full engagement with such historical and sociological questions would be likely impossible for costumed interpreters to provide in their few minutes of performance; but at the same time, the thoroughgoing focus on material culture at these sites meant that they elided almost entirely these complementary issues of community and identity. While achieving a balance between these different topics is much easier said than done, I’d argue it’s a very worthwhile goal for any 21st century historic site.
Last Williamsburg post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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