Colonial Williamsburg: History on Steroids

Posted June 12th, 2011 by

Sharon and I decided to wrap up our three-week U.S. road trip with a visit to a couple of famous and significant sites that interpret the arrival of European and African people to the Virginia shore. We bought tickets ($35 each) to Colonial Williamsburg and intended to follow a day there with a visit to Jamestown. Things looked promising.

Among the many historic homes, tours, interpreters, and displays on more than 300 acres at Williamsburg we would visit Great Hopes Plantation and take in two presentations. “Revolutionary Woman of Consequence” is the story of Edith Cumbo, a free African Virginian woman who describes the role of women during the American Revolution. “Workin’ the Soil, Healing the Soul” explains the lives of slaves on plantations, the laws they lived with, and how they survived.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. There is no charge for either performance, but you do need reservations. Both were already full. We decided to try to make the best of things and walked to the Great Hopes Plantation,which “represents African American slave interpretation, carpenters, and working farmers who were not part of huge tobacco plantations, showing what they did and how they lived.” On the Saturday when we visited, there was only one interpreter at one building inside the entire enclosure and no signs at any of the buildings to explain what we were viewing.

We left the plantation and decided to check out other exhibits. It was hot. We were disappointed. I was irritated. We saw nothing that interested us; nothing that contributed to the purpose of our journey. We were soon lost with no idea how to get back to the entry and our car. Williamsburg is huge. Eventually we found a shuttle bus that took us back.

I’m sure that many, many people benefit from all there is to learn at Williamsburg. It just didn’t work for our purposes. The kind folks there understood our situation and gave us a refund for our tickets. Sharon described Williamsburg as “the Frontier Culture Museum on steroids.” On the one hand, it’s great that so many people are interested in history. On the other hand it feels a bit like Disneyland. How do you balance such things? How do you achieve huge success and still maintain a personal feel for visitors? I’m going to have to think more about this.

The day before, Sharon and I found the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton quite by accident. We saw a road sign on our way into town and looked it up on the internet. It wasn’t busy when we arrived so were treated to a private tour from one of the volunteers. We were quite impressed. It’s a “living” museum. The interpreters wear hand-made period clothing; often from silk or cotton cloth made on site. Food is grown and harvested and cheese is made there. Everything sold in their museum store is made in America.

From their website:

“To tell the story of these early immigrants and their American descendents, the Museum has moved or reproduced examples of traditional rural buildings from England, Germany, Ireland, West Africa, and America. The Museum engages the public at these exhibits with a combination of interpretive signage and living history demonstrations. The outdoor exhibits are located in two separate areas: the Old World and America. The Old World exhibits show rural life and culture in four homelands of early migrants to the American colonies. The American exhibits show the life these colonists and their descendents created in the colonial backcountry, how this life changed over more than a century, and how life in the United States today is shaped by its frontier past.”

I’m so glad we found this place. We interacted with interpreters at each village or structure. The only disappointment was that the interpreter at the West African Igbo Village was not of African descent. We’ve heard now from three different places we’ve visited that it is often quite challenging to find people of color willing to act as interpreters for displays of enslaved people; which may explain why the only interpreter at Great Hope Plantation at Williamsburg was white.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting the more popular and busy historic sites. Anything that helps people better understand and acknowledge our nation’s troubled history, and learn from it, will help on the road to healing and understanding. I do, however, encourage others to seek out the many lesser-known historic destinations as well. We have much to learn and many places at which to do so.

See more photos from our journey here.

One response to “Colonial Williamsburg: History on Steroids”

  1. […] posting Colonial Williamsburg: History on Steroids a few days ago, I received more comments on Facebook than for anything I’ve written in […]

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