I work with someone who’s husband has been employed as a gunsmith by Colonial Williamsburg for twenty years. His position has now been eliminated along with hundreds of other jobs. I realize that budget cuts are necessary but maybe there are some other thing that can be done to ensure that Rockefeller’s vision is maintained in how Colonial Williamsburg is run.
This Essay which appeared in the VA Gazette was written by Ivor Noel Hume who retired as chief archaeologist for Colonial Williamsburg. It seems to bring a lot of ideas forward that need to be researched.
Negative publicity cannot be anything but damaging and serves only to make bad situations worse. In spite of it, we must never forget that restored Williamsburg is a national treasure and stands on a solid foundation laid down with Rockefeller money and by the love and toil of generations of dedicated personnel. A jewel in America’s cultural crown, Colonial Williamsburg deserves better than to be gauged only against the yardstick of tickets sold and customers counted.
The late DeWitt Wallace used to send down employees of Reader’s Digest to recharge their patriotic batteries” and to make them feel good about themselves and their heritage. Those of us who were privileged to work here had the luxury of that sensation every day of the week.
By modern standards salaries for many of us were not great, but from doormen at the Inn to draftsmen and archaeologists the satisfaction of contributing to something wonderful was beyond price.
So what went wrong?
Management’s vision became too broad and its monetary goals too high. Resting on our laurels was not an option. We had to do more to bring in more, and like the sorcerer’s apprentice the wave of progress carried all before it. The more we did the more people were needed to do it, and the greater became the need for tourist dollars to support it.
The public’s image of Colonial Williamsburg is governed by those whose job it is to promote it. Selling it primarily as a “tourist attraction” sends a message of probably pricey fun, and coupling it with Busch Gardens and Water Country confirms it. constructing a health spa and a high-end medical evaluation center say loudly, “This is not your father’s Williamsburg.”
A generation ago a young vice president told us that he saw restored Williamsburg as a theatrical backdrop against which we could teach anything we liked. The street theater provided by the new “Revolutionary City” program buys into the “only a backdrop” philosophy, shifting the focus away from the place to the play. One ex-employee jokingly likened it to a white wigs and knee britches version of a Wild West shootout at the OK Corral.
“The Story of a Patriot” movie, antique though it be, has done a good job preparing visitors for the coming Revolution, while leaving them free to enjoy the place where it all began –– in colonial Williamsburg. One might argue, therefore, that as Duke of Gloucester Street is a modern avenue with modern trees, lampposts, fireplugs and paved road surface, using it as stage for microphoneaided, in-your-face interpretations of Revolutionary history draws attention away from the story of life in the colony as it evolved through the 18th century.
The beauty and dignity of Colonial Williamsburg were the assets that made the State Department use it as its introduction to America for arriving foreign leaders.
Those of us who have lived through the years of change may be forgiven for voicing our own views of how Colonial Williamsburg can best face the future. To that end, I venture the following:
Put virtually all the eggs in the Historic Area basket and see the restored town not as a backdrop, but as a three-dimensional historical entity and an aesthetically satisfying visual experience. Make sure that every employee understands the parameters of the mission.
Recognize that Duke of Gloucester is a modern thoroughfare and treat the doors of the exhibition buildings as our gateway to the past. Let the rooms be the actors’ sets and stages.
Shed responsibility for the hotels and their maintenance by leasing them to a respected chain.
Limit restaurants to the history-promoting taverns.
Cease trying to sell both history and high-end health. They are incompatible.
Return to seeing Craft House as an extension of the educational mission and not simply a “sell what sells” department store. Issue sales catalogs that reflect the historical link instead of every other museum catalog.
When sending out e-mail spam, stress the historical mission and not resort-promoting sales pitches.
Recognize that in the public’s mind restored Williamsburg means the existing Historic Area. Adding more buildings or programs is unlikely to influence tourism one way or the other. Similarly, unless one is adding a jewel-studded Faberge elephant, buying more antiques for the Wallace Gallery museums will not appreciably enhance the number of paying visitors.
Restoring the gardens to their 1950s beauty (ignoring their lack of authenticity) can promote repeat visitation.
Settle for a budget commensurate with a paying visitation level of 750,000, and staff accordingly.
Consider the staff to be more valuable than the antiques or buildings. A frightened, disgruntled, underpaid or under-appreciated employee cannot be a happy camper. Disenchantment quickly spreads to colleagues and equally quickly to the visitors.
Tourists should be unaware that they are absorbing history. At its best, teaching is not preaching. Visitors are here, one hopes, to gently recharge their patriotic batteries and should be encouraged to periodically do so.
Beancounters may argue that most of these suggestions are money-losers and therefore impractical. But, as at the start-up of any new business, there has to be a teething (money-losing) period wherein the managers and scholars determine what works and what does not. I suggest that returning to history-rooted fundamentals can provide an exciting future and a chance to rekindle and fan the flame that once burned so brightly. But if in time it does not prosper, then the writing on the wall reads, “Forget history and settle for a massage.”
This update brought to you by Mr Williamsburg a local Realtor who blogs about living in Williamsburg and beyond…