Building a Better Colonial 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.”

In the 18th-century, Virginia law required all courthouses to have a stock and pillory outside. In 2020, Colonial Williamsburg bolted the headpiece shut, to discourage what had been a popular photo opportunity.Credit…Matt Eich for The New York Times

After decades of declining attendance and financial instability, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the private entity that owns and operates the site, is rethinking not just some of its structures, but also the stories it tells, adding or expanding offerings relating to Black, Native American and L.G.B.T.Q. history.

And it’s doing so amid a fierce partisan battle over American history, when the date “1776” — emblazoned on souvenir baseball hats on sale here — has become a partisan rallying cry.

Some conservative activists have accused Colonial Williamsburg of going “woke,” a charge also lobbed against Monticello and Montpelier, James Madison’s home. But Cliff Fleet, a former tobacco executive who took over as the foundation’s president and CEO in early 2020, firmly rejects it.

Cliff Fleet, Colonial Williamsburg’s CEO and president, has leaned into the mission of “fact-based history.” “Everything is going to be what actually happened,” he said. “That’s who we are.” Credit…Matt Eich for The New York Times

Fleet describes his approach as leaning into Colonial Williamsburg’s longtime mission of presenting “fact-based history,” grounded in rigorous research.

“That’s true to our brand,” he said. “Everything is going to be what actually happened. That’s who we are.”

Recounting “what actually happened” is no simple matter, as any historian will tell you. But when it comes to the state of contemporary Colonial Williamsburg, some facts speak powerfully.

In 2021, the foundation raised a record-breaking $102 million, up 42 percent from the previous high in 2019. To date, it has collected more than $6 million for the excavation and reconstruction of the First Baptist Church, home to one of the earliest Black congregations in the United States (founded in 1776), and more than $8 million for the restoration of the Bray School, which educated free and enslaved Black children in the 1760s and ’70s.

Those projects have won support across the political spectrum, including from Gov. Glenn Youngkin. In February, the governor — a Republican who on his first day in office signed an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory and other “inherently divisive concepts” in public schools — spoke at an event for the Bray School, citing the need “to teach all of our history, all of it, the good and the bad.”

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.”

A Patriotic Shrine

Colonial Williamsburg has its own complicated founding story. In the 1920s, a local minister persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr. to quietly buy most of the historic area, with the goal of recreating Virginia’s 18th-century colonial capital, down to each historically correct brick and nail.

Hundreds of post-1800 structures were dismantled or moved. More than 80 surviving 18th-century buildings were restored, while the foundations of more than 500 others were excavated so that painstakingly researched replica structures could be built on top of them.

More than 60 pre-1800 buildings have been restored, with hundreds more rebuilt on their excavated foundations. Here, the foundations of the Governors Palace in 1930.Credit…Visual Resources, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; Photo by Thomas Layton

After World War II, Colonial Williamsburg became a patriotic shrine and “symbol of democracy in the troubled world,” as a top executive put it. The Bicentennial brought a new boom, with annual paid attendance peaking in the mid-1980s at 1.1 million visitors, many of whom bedded down in period-style inns (or snapped up authorized colonial-style home products).

But not everyone appreciated the tastefully spic-and-span aesthetic. Writing in The New York Times in 1963, the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “superbly executed vacuum,” which fostered “an unforgivable fuzziness between the values of the real and the imitation.”

The carefully tended history also stirred criticism, particularly as social history, with its emphasis on ordinary people and marginalized groups, surged in the academy.

A street in Colonial Williamsburg, where the Grand Union flag indicates a building is open.Credit…Matt Eich for The New York Times
The site preserves more than 20 historic trades, including bookbindingCredit…Matt Eich for The New York Times
Products made in the blacksmith shop include nails used in the town’s restored and reconstructed 18th-century buildings.Credit…Matt Eich for The New York Times
A costumed interpreter portraying President George Washington. Interpreters are encouraged to break character to explain the research their portrayal draws on.Credit…Matt Eich for The New York Times

In the 1770s,

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