Following the AHA in Boston, I headed south, and made my way to Colonial Williamsburg, where I had a fabulous time. Since early childhood, I have always loved these kinds of places. I first visited Williamsburg when I was tiny, and it’s one of my earliest memories. I've visited plenty of other open air history sites over the years, of different scope and focus. And for all such places around the world that have developed in the last fifty years, Williamsburg is the mother ship.
I was very impressed with how knowledgeable the staff were, and keen to share their insights to colonial life. Visiting in winter meant that it was starkly beautiful, and it was possible to be the only visitor in some of the houses and stores. People explained their trades, and I as always found it fascinating. Williamsburg's archaeological discoveries, and diligent recreation of lost crafts and trades has given us a deeper knowledge of how things were done 250 years ago.
They're even willing to cop to their own errors over the years, as with this timeline showing the ways ideas about appropriate costumes have changed. Showing people how our own knowledge of history has changed like this is a great idea.
In presenting it for visitors though, it's an interesting balance, because they cannot sustain the notion that the interpreters are actually "living" the historical experience either. Of course, even the most "authentic" re-enactment is still a re-enactment: the participants are performing rather than experiencing. But if re-enactments typically focus on specific, significant events (with a known outcome), like battles, or political debates. In the tavern they straddle an awkward divide between serving Colonial Fare and beginning sentences with "In the eighteenth-century...". My swooning adoration of the National Parks Service notwithstanding, is a historical narrative more compelling for being presented by someone in kneebritches rather than a Ranger's uniform?
Does purchasing hand-dipped candles or a wax seal set really help improve people's understanding of history? (Larry Cebula just posted on people who visit Williamsburg with some historic misconceptions). In recent years, television shows like the 1900 House (and the variants that came after it), put regular people in the role of attempting to live as things would have been in a specific historical epoch. Would it be better if places like Williamsburg offered the opportunity for visitors to actually experience such pasts rather than simply observe them?
Whatever its shortcomings - and I do know historians who sniff at these types of historical sites - I applaud anything that's engaging the public with the past. I can't deny the possibility that sites like Colonial Williamsburg were the gateway drug that led to my mainlining academic history.