“If there is one firm guiding and restraining word which should be passed on to those who will be responsible for the restoration in the future, that one word is integrity. A departure from truth here and there will inevitably produce a cumulative deterioration of authenticity and consequent loss of public confidence. Loyalty demands that this principle of integrity be adhered to.”  –  The Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, A Briefe & True Report Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (April 1941).

Because Colonial Williamsburg is so rapidly, even spectacularly, spiraling out of the field of historic sites, and into a new, self-defined realm of history-themed leisure destinations, it was quickly getting beyond my interest as both an academic and a public historian. But I’m beginning to reverse that trend in my thinking given that CW has taken on a fresh role, one with vibrant utility and a seemingly endless production of content for current and burgeoning public historians: As the most glaring cautionary tale of modern times for museums and historic sites.  But yet another piece about the latest Tidewater foolishness–whether the collapse of CW’s commitment to any real educational endeavor, or the fact that it apparently now employs more speechwriters than historians of 18th-century Virginia–would be a waste of anyone’s time. Life is too short. It’s more important to use CW’s almost daily foibles as examples of what historic sites that strive for donor confidence, brand development and protection, and historical legitimacy should not do. In that sense, CW is providing a quite valuable service to the rest of us. So we can let the ice rink and the massive pirate M&M now standing in the Visitor’s Center speak for themselves (perhaps literally, if the M&M talks, which wouldn’t surprise me at this point).

However, when the President and CEO of CW, or maybe his senior speechwriter (a real first for any historic site I’ve ever heard of), or a junior speechwriter, decides to tout the “critical” importance of “[h]istorical authenticity” in a local newspaper–and then proceeds to not only get that history wrong but to defend it, then attention must be paid. Yes, I suppose that CW’s new Halloween programming scratches some Jungian itch, and I appreciate the writer of the piece, whoever it was, for tapping Wake Forest’s terrific Eric Wilson, a respected professor of English whose speciality is the connection of literature and psychology, for his take on Jung. But perhaps he or she should have included the title of one of Wilson’s most illuminating explorations of Jung, which seems more apt to CW’s current situation — Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.

Since the piece brings up a few specific things to defend, as “[f]anciful programming” that “draws nonetheless from a dark chapter in Williamsburg’s past,” let’s take one or two examples of this commitment to historical authenticity out for a spin, shall we? How about, “the actual trial and hangings of Blackbeard’s pirate crew here [in Williamsburg]”? As Hampton Roads’ Daily Press covered just last year, a new book by historian Kevin Duffus, based on a mountain of solid research, reveals that much we had assumed about the fate of Blackbeard’s crew was wrong.  Some of Blackbeard’s crew were held in Williamsburg’s original gaol (only traces of which still exist — the current building is almost entirely a reconstruction), but the Vice-Admiralty Court where they were tried was most likely held in Hampton, where those few who were sentenced to death were hanged and buried, not in Williamsburg. This one might be open to interpretation of the few remaining documents, even if most historians now discount the story that CW seems committed to telling for Halloween and beyond, so let’s call it a foul ball, rather than a swinging strike. Either way, it’s hardly fact and shouldn’t be scored as a hit in the historical box score.

Much more glaring is the upcoming Halloween programming in a town that never experienced it as it is presented this year. Forget “ancient Celtic traditions” (questionable) or imperative Jungian yearnings (laughable), it’s just not true, regardless of one’s interpretation of 18th-century Williamsburg, of an English, Episcopalian town culturally gripped by Enlightenment ideals, in which most inhabitants scorned anything approaching the supernatural. From the period there is only one recorded “ghost story”–that of the mysterious ringing bells of William & Mary’s Wren Building. But the best source for an understanding of Halloween, which apparently neither Mr. Reiss nor his team of speechwriters bothered to read, is CW’s own take on it: A nicely comprehensive and accessible article in the now-defunct but once quite good Colonial Williamsburg Journal, written by historian Mary Miley Theobald, author of the splendid Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, also published by CW. Her assessment could not be more clear:

Colonial Americans didn’t celebrate Halloween. They didn’t have jack-o’-lanterns either, or trick or treat, or costumes, or candy as we know it.   

Does that mean CW should ignore the modern practice of Halloween? Of course not. It is fun. Guests do like it. Moreover, there are plenty of autumnal, harvest activities in which colonial Virginians did engage that could be both engaging and authentic for guests as part of programming. And shifting the telling of ghost stories on dark nights around roaring fires, which was a Christmas tradition, up two months does not hurt anyone. Similarly, there were real trials of properly nasty people who were duly executed on Williamsburg’s gallows, and their bodies dumped into the nearby ravine, around which to build “spooky” programming.  But even the relatively modern, and wonderfully charming, Christmas programming that has long been beloved by generations of guests has not, at least to my knowledge, been subject to audacious claims of faux 18th-century authenticity, augmented by appeals to subconscious psychological needs (“[N]ow more than ever”? Really?) as accompanies the latest attempt to cover CW’s disengagement with history.

When the board brought on the new regime, I kept an open mind and was crossing my fingers for better things for CW and, more to the point, the fine interpreters and tradespersons and other staff who work there every day. In any case, it doesn’t do to make up one’s mind about things or people too quickly, if at all. But, having literally written the book on the place, I have a soft spot for those whose loyalty is, as CW’s founding visionary, the Rev. Goodwin, had hoped, to the broad view of the institution’s future and, as a public historian, critical, in a constructive sense, of the ways in which it impacts our understanding of the past–even if that impact becomes a negative one. The practice of history, public or academic, is not a popularity contest. So perhaps Mr. Reiss and his team should be true to the reality of their situation and, for that, rely even more heavily on Prof. Wilson. After all, CW is almost entirely the construction of a place that never actually existed, rather than the painstaking reconstruction of one at a particular point in its history. Architecturally speaking, it’s a best-guess mishmash of buildings from different periods and places, some built where others were, some where they were not, some to reflect other parts of the Chesapeake, with beautiful, ornamental gardens where there were actually once stables, cow pens, and pigsties. So no one from the 1700s, should they magically return today, would fully recognize the place. In that sense, if CW’s board is going to allow the new leadership to persist in publicly painting their new approach in the colors of historical legitimacy, perhaps they are being more true to the authentic nature of the place than they know. If so, Wilson’s latest book gives them a mission statement worthy of their apparent vision for it: Keep It Fake.

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4 thoughts on ““Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck”: Halloween and Colonial Williamsburg’s Historical Collision

  1. Likely a fireable offense to admit, but recently I was told when pitching a decent educational program, “forget about the history.”

    A sinking ship I wish I could escape from.

  2. An M&M character in the visitor’s center? I’m cringing! I went to school at W&M and have such fond memories of CW, both as a student and visiting there with family growing up. I haven’t been tuned in to what is happening there but I hope they can figure out some more up to date programming that stays true to its roots. P.S. Had a class in the Wren building my freshman year – such a great experience!

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