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.”
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.”
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