Colonial Williamsburg: Authentic, fake or 1920s dreamland?

Giles Waterfield, former director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, looks at how the Colonial Willamsburg Foundation tackles the problems of shifting historical perspectives


Revered in the US (but not by Ada Louis Huxtable, who called it “as phony as a nine-dollar bill”), often sneered at by Europeans, Colonial Williamsburg this year celebrates the tercentenary of the city’s foundation. From its foundation in the 1920s, when the Revd Goodwin of Bruton Parish Church interested John D. Rockefeller in restoring the old capital of Virginia, it has become the world’s largest social history museum. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation now numbers 3,600 employees, of whom half work on its commercial side, notably hotels and restaurants. Of the 1,800 people employed on the historic site, half work in the education division, while 160 historians, curators and conservators (a generous total by any standards) look after the collections, with teams, each of around ten experts, for historical research and archaeology. The foundation makes a striking contrast to the less research-minded National Trust (NT) for England and Wales: with its much greater number of sites, and a staff of around 2,500, the NT employs only around three dedicated curators for its huge collections and has no research or archaeological departments, while the educational activities operate on a much smaller scale.

In North America, Colonial Williamsburg, though a private foundation, has played a public role in the creation of taste. Following the example of the Wallaces, founders of the Reader’s Digest, Williamsburg has ensured that annual visitors, architects and patrons all over the country have been inspired by the inter-war ideal of the Colonial Revival. Builders of quasi-colonial suburban houses all over the country, and curators of house museums and private houses have all constantly deferred to Williamsburg as the leading historical authority.

Williamsburg is doing nicely. In 1997, its turn-over was around $170 million (£106 million), of which over half came from its commercial operations. It has a vigorous fund-raising department, which contributes around $25 million annually, comparable to admissions income. Although the magnificent rural setting is suffering crude development of the sort that has degraded much of the East Coast, the foundation is acquiring land around the Historic Site to preserve the Virginian idyll. In 1997 it opened Bruton Heights School Education Center (at a cost of over $37 million), where the collections and the conservation laboratories and educational support facilities are for the first time united on one site. The work of research and historic restoration continue actively. Visitor figures remain pretty constant.

So can Williamsburg enter its fourth century without qualms? In material terms, probably yes. In terms of the foundation’s essential mission, the trustees and the staff are faced with some difficult questions. They need to be resolved if Williamsburg is to retain its vigour.

When Rockefeller became involved in Williamsburg in 1927, he was concerned, like many of his contemporaries, with the identity of the US at a time when immigration was reshaping national demography. As he put it, the purpose of this undertaking was to restore the town “to what it was in the old colonial days, and to make it a great centre for historical study and inspiration.” The historical canon he selected was, of course, the British colonial past, with its white, Anglo-Saxon associations. However this view of the early history may be interpreted, it is not necessarily the aspect of America’s early history which interests the majority of young American citizens today.

As Colonial Williamsburg developed, Rockefeller defined his ideas about how the town should be presented. It was to be as perfect as a town could be, while striving for historical authenticity. This credo dictated, for example, that the buildings and the fences should be repainted every year, with the gardens meticulously maintained. Such high maintenance was not historically accurate, while Rockefeller’s charmed view of the eighteenth century meant that matters such as slavery were almost forgotten. In an industrial age, Colonial Williamsburg was more than a reflection of the past. What was created was a garden city, where a happy community (of which he and his wife were glad to be an occasional, but regular, part) would lead lives of pastoral contentment. It is an ideal that has maintained its appeal, particularly with neo-conservative town planners, such as Leon Krier, continuing to regard Williamsburg as a prototype.

In practical terms, this ideal community approach has faded under the pressures of a huge public audience. For reasons of economy, maintenance has recently been relaxed, achieving something closer to historical authenticity. Difficult social issues now play an important part in the work of the foundation, which regularly studies slavery and the treatment accorded to criminals. The Colonial Revival presentation has been modified under the impact of architectural and historical research.

But the quest for authenticity raises difficult questions. There are, for example, few horses in Williamsburg; horses being difficult to manage and having a tendency to leave evidence of their passing. Eighteenth-century smells are hardly to be replicated in a town where air conditioning and the water closet rule. Even inside the houses, some of which are currently being painstakingly restored, problems arise over furnishings. Much of the furniture, bought in the 1950s and 1960s, is of higher quality than eighteenth-century inhabitants would have owned, and is at risk in heavily-visited interiors. If it is replaced by facsimiles of what might have been there, a quixotic step is taken towards spurious accuracy. Again, in architectural terms, it is increasingly apparent that in important rebuildings of the 1920s and 1930s the architects were guided by aesthetic, rather than archaeological, considerations. How far, the architectural historians may ask, is it possible to use the sophisticated historical information available today to present a modern view of architectural authenticity and, if necessary, to rebuild major structures according to their original plans? If that is not feasible, is it honest to show a Colonial Revival fantasy as though it were the historical truth? Should Colonial Williamsburg come clean and present itself as a 1920s dreamland? And if it does, will its visitors be disappointed and confused?

Colonial Williamsburg is, after all, big business. It still offers, particularly for a traditionally-minded public, the opportunity to engage in improving and patriotic nostalgia. While the research departments may pose probing questions, the answers can only with caution be applied to an independently-funded organisation where pleasing the visitors is a prime objective. One might argue, like Huxtable and many other critics, that the whole concept of the foundation is flawed, a stage setting with a political agenda masquerading as historical authenticity. But this always was a bold experiment, engaged in an evolving dialogue with the past. It does give most of its visitors an intimation of the different quality of life in the past, probably a stronger one than they would gain from historical sites in Britain. Williamsburg has already, in its sixty years, shown itself capable of developing: it remains to be seen whether it will be capable of adapting to the particularly awkward demands of the twenty-first century.