The Inauthenticity of Colonial Williamsburg

Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg uses an ethnographic approach to examine Colonial Williamsburg (CW) and the ways in which it produces history. The authors conducted interviews with employees and a few visitors, and analyzed the history of CW, its historiographical approaches from the 1930s through the 1980s, corporate structure, the picketing of restaurant and hotel workers in 1991, its educational programs, and the training of its employees who are on the “front line.” They are particularly interested in examining whether CW is embracing the new social history and propagating a more complete view of the past. Handler and Gable argue that “by looking at what happens on the ground in a particular place, at a particular time, we will show that social history has hardy the kind of insurgent effect its critics claim for it.” (Handler and Gable 8) Throughout the text, Handler and Gable use the term mimesis “to refer to such realist or objectivist approaches to history making at Colonial Williamsburg…mimesis refers to Colonial Williamsburg’s avowed mission to recreate a colonial American city as it existed in the mid-eighteenth century.” (Handler and Gable 70)

The strongest chapter of the book is the final chapter titled “The Bottom Line.” Handler and Gable sum up their findings and indict CW for what they see as a mishandling of the interpretation of history presented to visitors.  “Mimetic realism…destroys history. To teach the public that the work of Colonial Williams is to reconstruct the past as it really was erases all the interpretive work that goes into the museum’s story. It erases the choices the museum makes…and it erases the political and cultural values that, explicitly or implicitly, underpin those choices. Mimetic realism thus deadens the historical sensibility of the public…[and] destroys the utility of history as a vehicle for social criticism.” (Handler and Gable 224) For Handler and Gable, not only is the mission of CW unachievable, it is also an escapist farce that does not allow for a larger comparative analysis of society and culture.

The chapters that focus on the discussion and presentation of slavery at CW are fascinating and infuriating. When taking the Other Half Tour, black interpreters lead their groups of visitors to the Wythe House and, while standing outside it, discuss the nature of sexual relationships between whites and the enslaved at CW. George Wythe himself allegedly engaged in a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, although the (generally white) interpreters inside the Wythe house deny such a relationship existed because there is no “hard evidence” to back up such a claim. This is just one way in which CW attempts to whitewash slavery. During the Christmas season at CW, Handler and Gable attended an evening at the Wythe house that attempted to show how Christmas was celebrated by whites and the enslaved. Handler and Gable note that “although slaves had a voice in this program, their actions and words ultimately served to highlight the virtues of George Wythe.” (Handler and Gable 112) The focus was on Wythe, who was described by the tour guide at the start of the program as gentleman with a brilliant mind, a lawyer, teacher, scholar, revolutionary, and judge, and the program ended with Wythe discussing the problems of the institution and how owning slaves does not rest easily on his conscious. (Handler and Gable 103) It is exasperating that Wythe was not described more accurately as a lawyer, teacher, scholar, revolutionary, judge, and slaveholder. Here again is this problem of American heroes. These “great men” must be portrayed as heroic defenders and protectors of American democracy, rather than be painted in a more accurate light. Why is it not possible for men like Wythe and Jefferson to be described as patriots and slaveholders? Can we not accept the fact that these men did great and terrible things? Why must the latter half be glossed over? Also highly concerning was the flippant remarks made by some guides or interpreters about slavery. One guide Handler and Gable encountered mentioned that slaves in Williamsburg in the Revolutionary period were treated relatively well and then noted that the life of a slave in Revolutionary Williamsburg would have been much better than the life of a slave picking cotton in Mississippi in the 1840s. Such remarks demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the history of slavery in the United States. Why did the guide feel the need to reassure his audience that Williamsburg was not a bad place to be a slave? Even through these paltry examples alone, it is abundantly clear that the new social history is not being properly channeled from CW historians to the employees who interact with visitors on a daily basis. This is a problem that has many causes, as Handler and Gable have aptly demonstrated, and the major one is that CW is a business and its pedagogical practices do not enable a deeper analysis or critique of slavery.

The current mission of Colonial Williamsburg is “to be a center for history and citizenship, encouraging national and international audiences to learn from the past through the preservation, restoration, and presentation of 18th-century Williamsburg and the study, interpretation, and teaching of America’s founding democratic principles.” In light of this week’s book, it would be interesting to determine whether this new mission also includes more dedicated approaches to integrating new social history into the production of history at CW. At a first brief and very cursory glance, it does not appear so. Their digital project Tour the Town includes an African American experience tour, which highlights three places of interest in CW: the African American Religion Exhibit, Great Hopes Plantation, and Peyton Randolph House. Nowhere in the short description of the Peyton Randolph House does it describe the slaves who worked and lived there. There is mention of outbuildings (“A full complement of outbuildings stood to the north (in back), including a two-story brick kitchen, a stable for 12 horses, a coach house, and a dairy”) but there is no discussion of the enslaved. Similarly, the description of the Peyton Randolph House on the CW website, from which it seems likely the information for Tour the Town was taken, mentions the outbuildings but not the slaves. It is oversights like this that work to silence any larger discussion on slavery at CW. Despite blacks making up half of the population of Williamsburg, any discussion of their history is still relegated to the margins.

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