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The future of history: New direction for Colonial Williamsburg met with praise, backlash
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The future of history: New direction for Colonial Williamsburg met with praise, backlash

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WILLIAMSBURG — For Halloween weekend last fall, Colonial Williamsburg rolled out “Blackbeard’s Revenge,” a slate of spooky events that included free trick-or-treating; costume contests; “pirate games”; pumpkin decorating; tours of the jail, where interpreters portrayed imprisoned “undead” buccaneers; and a grave digger who related “tales of burying Blackbeard’s crew.”

Mitchell Reiss, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s president and CEO and the architect of a series of overhauls since he took over in late 2014, said the weekend was an unqualified success, drawing 10,000 people over two nights.

Roughly 80 percent of first-time visitors surveyed said they would return.

“Unless you can get people to come, you can’t engage them. You can’t educate them, and you can’t inspire them,” Reiss said. “The Blackbeard story was fun, it was accurate-ish. But you know, it got people here and they had a great time.”

Under Reiss, the Halloween program joins initiatives such as adding a skating rink on Duke of Gloucester Street for the winter months; “up-lighting” the exterior of buildings such as the Governor’s Palace and the Magazine at night; and promotional moves that include dispatching an interpreter portraying George Washington to the Iowa State Fair in connection with the presidential caucuses and to the Nasdaq stock market in New York City.

Reiss also has presided over major changes to staffing and programs and green-lit the foundation’s first-ever Super Bowl ad, which featured footage of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ignited a wave of social media backlash and negative news coverage. It was the first of a new three-part ad campaign.

The cumulative effect has some critics questioning whether the foundation is losing sight of its educational mission and historical focus in favor of chasing what may prove to be a more fickle type of tourist. Others see encouraging strides in a new direction.

“The status quo always has stakeholders,” said B.J. Pryor, who was portraying a Colonial bailiff for visitors at the courthouse last month and has worked at Colonial Williamsburg for 35 years. “Potential’s one thing. Execution’s another. We’ll see how it all works out. ... The place needed shaking up, and Mitchell’s shaking things up. Personally, I’m very optimistic in a way I haven’t been for a while.”

‘Out of step’

But where some see a necessary evolution to stay relevant and solvent, others see a slippery slope that risks alienating longtime donors and devotees of the living history museum, billed as the largest of its kind in the world.

The town owes its preservation to the Rev. William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin, a former rector of Bruton Parish Church and a department head at the College of William and Mary who convinced Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller Jr. to put up the money for the purchase and restoration of dozens of Colonial buildings in the 1920s. Rockefeller would eventually contribute $56 million to Colonial Williamsburg and related projects, according to the Rockefeller Archive Center.

“It’s an entirely different Colonial Williamsburg. Its job is to make money as much as it is to educate, which is necessary, because it has to survive,” said Ivor Noël Hume, 88, the eminent British archaeologist and former director of archaeology at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, who calls himself “what’s left of the Rockefeller era.”

Hume, who still lives in Williamsburg, led the archaeological excavations around Carter’s Grove from 1975 to 1983 that unearthed the 17th-century settlement of Wolstenholme Town.

“It’s certainly not what Mr. Rockefeller had in mind. ... They’re doing the best they can to keep the show going. But the trouble is, it’s become more of a show than an educational resource, although there are people there who would strongly disagree with that,” he said.

Blackbeard, for example, was killed in a sea battle with the Royal Navy off the North Carolina coast in 1718 during an expedition organized by Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood. Afterward, some of his crew were held in the jail in Williamsburg, then Virginia’s Colonial capital. However, the foundation acknowledged that any executions likely took place in Hampton and that “Blackbeard and his crew did not frequent Williamsburg.”

Neither did the zombie pirates who paraded through Colonial Williamsburg streets last fall, but foundation spokesman Kevin Crossett said similar Halloween programming has been adopted at other major historical sites and gives the museum a chance to “entertain and educate as well as draw new audiences into Colonial Williamsburg to experience our one-of-a-kind interpretative staff.”

Taylor Stoermer, a former Colonial Williamsburg historian who now is a visiting fellow at Harvard University, said the changes might seem minor but represent a big break from the organization’s previous mission and standards.

“It’s out of step with the brand and the reputation Colonial Williamsburg has spent decades trying to establish,” he said.

Neither Stoermer nor Hume see such attractions as sustainable ways to boost attendance.

“My own view is that it won’t in the long haul, because it will turn off those people who really saw it as a historic shrine rather than an amusement park,” Hume said.

‘The Disney filter’

Christine McLynn, a retired financial services professional who lives in Charlotte, N.C., but who spent about two decades in the Tidewater area, had been coming to Williamsburg around Christmas with her family for 10 years.

Last year, prompted by the decision to install an ice-skating rink on Duke of Gloucester Street, an attraction sponsored by Dominion that drew about 20,000 guests from Nov. 21 to Feb. 14, they decided to go elsewhere.

“The notion of having to jockey around that thing and watch Colonial characters skate around an ice rink ... I don’t think that elevates the experience,” said McLynn, also a regular foundation donor with more Colonial Williamsburg pillows and silverware than she cares to count.

She described the Halloween program as another recent change that would make her think twice about a visit.

“You can’t totally expect everyone to be a history nerd. It’s just the degree, how far you drift off from that mission, that the future can learn from the past,” she said.

“I wouldn’t put myself in the ultra-purist camp. But I look at things and kind of use the Disney filter in my head. If it smacks too much of ‘show time,’ rather than history, my line’s somewhere in there. I love Williamsburg, I want them to succeed. I just want them to use that mission filter.”

Keith Jenkins, a 41-year-old Frederick County fire captain, saw nothing wrong with the rink when he brought his family for visits in December and February.

“I thought it was kind of neat,” said Jenkins, who had his and his wife’s wedding bands crafted by a Colonial Williamsburg silversmith.

For Colonial Williamsburg to sustain itself, it needs to engage visitors in different ways at different times in their lives so they can graduate from the simpler pleasures of trick-or-treating or ice skating to the nuances, for instance, of Peyton Randolph’s political career, Jenkins said.

“That’s how, to me, a place like that survives. It builds memories,” Jenkins said. “I don’t think they’re making it a theme park. ... There are so many things to see and do and so much to learn. We’ve been going for five years now and I’ve still not seen everything.”

‘A different America’

“Yes” is the very short answer to the question of whether Colonial Williamsburg needs new audiences, Reiss said.

Visitation peaked at 1.2 million a year in the mid-1970s, partly the result of bicentennial fervor but also for less tangible reasons.

“It was a different America. We took more vacations. We taught more history in schools. We didn’t have iPads and iPhones to distract us and reduce our attention span to nanoseconds. We maybe even were more patriotic in a way and more aware of history,” Reiss said.

“All of these have combined to place some challenges in front of us and in front of other historic sites and museums across the country. We have to address them head-on. We can’t pretend that they don’t exist.”

Individual ticket sales, not including promotional tickets that were given to groups and counted in the past whether or not they were used, rose from 474,299 in 2014 to 480,007 in 2015, a modest increase but one that reverses a years-long downward trend, the foundation said.

Eliza Kozlowski, director of communications and audience development at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y., and a member of the board of directors of the American Alliance of Museums, said connecting with new audiences and propping up attendance is a common challenge for historic sites and museums in a world changed by mobile devices and other technology.

“Historic sites, historic houses, we have certainly seen declining attendance, and there’s a challenge of what can we do to bring people back,” she said. “Everybody’s had to adapt to how we’re all digesting information these days.”

Elizabeth Kostelny CEO of the nonprofit Preservation Virginia, which operates Historic Jamestowne and an assemblage of other historic sites, called it a “balancing act.” She is aware of the discussion around Colonial Williamsburg’s moves, though she wouldn’t offer an opinion.

“Oftentimes, if visitors have come to a place again and again, sometimes part of the attraction is that it remains the same. So certainly as we’ve made some changes, we’ve heard some people bristle. But generally as we talk through with them about why we’ve made changes and how it’s expanding our reach, they’re understanding of it,” she said. “I think Colonial Williamsburg has always shown leadership in museums and historic preservation. A lot of historic sites look up to Colonial Williamsburg. They set the bar.”

‘Meet people where they live’

Other moves by Reiss’ administration have raised eyebrows, including ending Colonial Williamsburg’s sponsorship relationship with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, which the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation helped start in 1943 as a joint effort with William and Mary.

“They had a sufficient endowment at that point where they could be self-sustaining, and frankly I needed the money for my people and my programs,” Reiss said. “We still hope that we will continue to collaborate and cooperate with Omohundro and with other museums and history centers around the country.”

Karin Wulf, Omohundro’s director, declined a request for an interview and referred a reporter to a statement on the institute’s website that assured readers “that we will continue to staff and support our core programs that have, since 1943, advanced early American scholarship.”

Reiss also plans to phase out Colonial Williamsburg’s award-winning electronic field trip program, which provides historical documentary or dramatic video in combination with live discussion by experts and historians; has replaced the venerable Colonial Williamsburg Journal with a new magazine; and enacted a staff reorganization that eliminated about 66 positions and an early-retirement offer that was taken by an additional 153 employees.

Crossett, the foundation spokesman, said the largest segment of the positions eliminated were in the hospitality division and “did not impact front-line staff in the new Education, Research and Historical Interpretation Division.”

Lance Pedigo, 52, who said he “grew up” in Colonial Williamsburg’s Fifes and Drums, eventually becoming manager of music programming, was among those who saw his job axed.

“There wasn’t any reason really given to me other than the entire push of the administration is to cut costs,” he said, adding that a severance agreement limited what he could discuss.

However, he still considers himself part of the “Colonial Williamsburg family” and said Reiss’ improvements “are working and successful.”

“Every organization is tasked to change and evolve with current trends and current thinking. That’s what they’re doing, so everyone will have positives and negatives,” he said.

Other changes also are in the works. A live-fire musket range will debut next weekend south of the historic area near the Golden Horseshoe Golf Course, giving visitors the chance to try out 18th-century Brown Bess reproductions and other flintlock weapons for $119.

Tens of millions of dollars are being invested in the foundation’s hotels and amenities. Candle-dipping is coming back, coach and livestock operations are being expanded, and Reiss thinks Colonial Williamsburg should be the “premier wedding destination on the East Coast,” given its dozens of historic gardens and other unique offerings.

Reiss did acknowledge a constant tension between hewing to the foundation’s historical and educational mission and drumming up business.

“We debate it, we discuss it, we argue over it. Where do you draw the line? We’re not Disney World, we never will be Disney World, but you have to meet people where they live,” he said. “Some of your best teachers were probably pretty fun in the classroom. You have to get people to come. They’re on vacation, right? But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to bastardize the experience. It means we’re going to present history with integrity.”

For 2015, expenses were down $300,000 compared with 2014, and revenue was up nearly $7 million in the same period, along with hotel occupancy, which increased by 7 percentage points, and meals served, up 4 percent.

The Colonial Williamsburg Fund for 2015 was $15.7 million, the highest ever and the product of 123,650 individual donors, also a record, the foundation says. And though the foundation still ran an operating loss of about $37.5 million that required it to draw on its endowment, which had a market value of $772 million in 2014, that represented an improvement of $4.2 million over 2014, Crossett said.

“The people who care the most about this place, who are investing in it, they understand that we have to change because they understand these trends that we’re swimming against,” Reiss said.

Beyond the dollars and cents, Reiss also cited an increase in book publishing by the foundation and the recent addition to the board of trustees of Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard law and history professor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar known for her work on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Attempts to interview her were unsuccessful.

“I don’t think she would want to be associated if she thought somehow we were shortchanging history,” Reiss said, adding that the foundation’s critics and supporters are often the same people. “The critics care passionately about this place. They want us to be successful, they understand why we’re important.”

The history of Colonial Williamsburg as an attraction, however, has been one of constant evolution, he noted.

“It was different in the ’70s, it was different in the ’90s. And it’s going to be different in the 21st century because we’re different. Society’s different,” Reiss said. “If we stay the same, the great risk is that we’re just going to decline because people aren’t going to come here and we won’t be able to tell our stories and fulfill our mission.”

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