Can Colonial Williamsburg Do Living History Better?

Historians in the News
tags: museums, Virginia, public history, early American history, colonial America, Williamsburg

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Those who come to Colonial Williamsburg on a nostalgia trip will find some of what they are looking for.

The fife-and-drum corps can still be found marching down Duke of Gloucester Street, whose storefronts are full of costumed interpreters making 18th-century wigs, or re-enacting the political debates that helped birth the American Revolution.

But approach the stocks and pillories in front of the courthouse to recreate a goofy photo from a long-ago school trip, and you will find the headpieces bolted shut.

They were closed up in the spring of 2020, as a Covid-related measure. And they have remained that way, as Colonial Williamsburg — the world’s largest “living history” museum — rethinks the messages behind a favorite Instagram moment.

“These are friendly stocks,” Matt Webster, the director for architectural preservation, explained on a recent tour (during which he also pointed out the less-than-friendly whipping post nearby).

And not particularly accurate ones, at that. The 18th-century stocks would have been higher, smaller and more uncomfortable. “They were meant,” Webster said, “to humiliate.”

The modified stocks are an apt metaphor for today’s Colonial Williamsburg, a 301-acre complex consisting of more than 600 restored or reconstructed 18th-century buildings, 30 gardens, five hotels, three theaters, two art museums and a long, tangled history of grappling with questions of authenticity, national identity and what it means to get the past “right.”

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For some longtime Williamsburg-watchers, the institution’s leadership has deftly steered through today’s choppy political waters by staying true to the past.

“It’s a remarkable shift, but in some ways a return to C.W.’s original mission,” said Karin Wulf, a historian and the former executive director of the Omohundro Institute, an independent research group at the College of William & Mary.

“The scholarship of decades has shown us this fuller, richer picture of Early America,” Wulf said. “It’s diverse, it’s complex, it’s violent. But it’s the real thing.”

Read entire article at New York Times