A month or so ago, a friend of mine and I sat on the front porch of Concord’s Colonial Inn, our regular place of refreshment, and talked about the reasons behind the steady decline of large, recreated public history sites like Historic Deerfield, Old Sturbridge Village, and Colonial Williamsburg. A pioneering public historian who established the program at the College of William & Mary that educated many of their former leaders, he posited that the age of such sites as viable heritage attractions was simply over. Whatever success they once enjoyed was part of post-World War II trends in tourism that have disappeared with the passing of the generations that followed them. Economic downturns and poor management have contributed to the general drop in visitation for many of the sites–even the precipitous collapse of at least one of them as a legitimate non-profit heritage institution–but, all things considered, they are part of an era in the history of public history that has just run its course. Essentially, he argued, they were not much different from a television show that continues on long after it should have been canceled, kept alive by sentiment for what was, rather than appreciation for what is. Any sustainable future they could have, therefore, might be based on that sentiment, as relics of 20th-century attempts to capture an idealized, nationalistic past — a sort of “Nick at Nite” for American heritage.
At first, I subscribed to his theory. After all, I know few people whose insights on both the thought and practice of public history I respect more, and I’ve had a front-row seat for the decline, if not fall, of more than one site. Moreover, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the number of smaller, more manageable sites and organizations that I’ve lately encountered — such as the Golden Ball Tavern, the Royall House and Slave Quarters, and Old State House in Massachusetts, and the Newport and Rhode Island Historical Societies — with smart, energetic leadership and engaged trustees that allow them to be nimble enough to adjust to changing times. Consequently, it made complete sense to me as a coherent declension theory, coupled with the rise of small sites that might provide a new model for public history, especially if they collaborate and leverage resources, even as they more aggressively target their individual efforts. And so, with that in mind, I went off to write my syllabus for my spring course on the practice of public history.
Then I visited Plimoth Plantation and, promptly on my return, ripped up my syllabus.
What I found in Plimoth was an institution worthy not only of emulation, but of admiration. Buffeted by the same, seemingly inexorable forces that are turning other heritage sites into caricatures, Plimoth Plantation’s burdens might actually be greater than those of other such sites, because whatever benefits they might enjoy of being within Boston’s tourism “halo” (roughly the area within which a family could make a comfortable day or weekend trip), the so-called Pilgrims (Plymouth’s, er, Plimoth’s Puritan Separatists) are hardly a marketing director’s dream. Longfellow’s romanticism aside, it’s not for nothing that H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism generally as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” and historian Bruce Daniels, in his counterpoint to the characterization, summarized as “a synonym for the dour, the joyless, the repressed.” That’s hardly, on its face, the recipe for a weekend of family fun. (Hey, kids! It’s a beautiful day. Forget Fenway Park. Let’s go to Plimoth for some fasting and prayer!) Then there are the Separatists’ relations with the Wampanoag. Again, not a happy ending for anybody, regardless of how much one has bought into American Thanksgiving myths. Further sinking Plimoth into interpretive difficulties, or so it might seem, is its adherence to (what many sites get very wrong) strict first-person costumed interpretation at the reconstructed village site and (what other sites totally ignore) the representation of Native Americans as a living culture at the Wampanoag site. And then there’s the challenge of managing all that with a small staff and a tight budget. On the face of it, a potential donor would not be blamed for passing on the opportunity to send Plimoth a check.
Yet that donor would be missing a rare opportunity to be part of something very special — for there is real magic going on at Plimoth Plantation. True to the Puritan spirit, it is not the magic of endless wonder. Leave that to Disney, which does it well, and those heritage sites looking for a quick fix rather than a sustainable model. Rather, at today’s Plimoth, one can witness an alchemy created by blending a hefty dose of experience, a couple dollops of cleverness, and–the secret ingredient–more than a few refreshing drops of sheer boldness.
Understanding the challenges that face them as well as, if not better than, anyone, Plimoth’s leadership, which includes the indefatigable Richard Pickering (a product of my friend’s William & Mary program), has done what other sites would (and do, believe me) consider unthinkable: they have run into the fire. By that I mean that Plimoth’s answer to the question of sustainability, even growth, is better history and more of it, not less. It’s a greater commitment to its mission, not an about-face from it. The existing programming has been strengthened to place both the Puritan Separatist and Native American experiences on more firm ground with a greater focus on interpretive technique and historical background. In fact, the orientation film and signage, found to be either inaccurate or otherwise unhelpful in communicating the reality of the Plimoth experience, have been removed. Plimoth has introduced new programming to more effectively engage visitors–with creative projects like “America’s First Test Kitchen,” third-person interpreters in modern clothes, and an expansion of the Native American dimension of their shared and troubled history with the Puritans–that provide a greater range of meaningful connections, all towards the goal that the best guest experience is based on solid history that prompts fresh questions instead of stale answers. Even its planned ventures into the deployment of technology might set a new standard for the field, yet still be clearly driven by the mission and a firm commitment to getting the past right so that the present can learn from it.
That’s not easy to do, of course. It requires leaders who offer a clear vision and a staff with the intelligence and drive to implement it. It also demands a Board that recognizes the potential of both and the awareness that such strategies take years to implement and evaluate — and then allows the staff to get on with it without tinkering every three months. Fortunately, even magically, Plimoth seems to have all these things. I’ve seen it myself, on the worst possible day for heritage sites, one cold and damp, complete with the occasional downpour. Yet I saw guests who couldn’t be pried from a modern cooking demonstration of 17th-century cuisine in a chilly, colonial cabin and children fascinated by a Wampanoag long house and the centuries-old stories told within it. I also found keen, young staff members who have bought into what could be called “the new Plimoth adventure” with as much knowledge about the Puritans and their world as I encounter among anyone walking across Harvard Yard.
That’s all well and good, even inspiring, you might well say, but it’s nothing to get dewy-eyed about if, like all the rest, the balance sheet is, well, unbalanced. As my friends and colleagues know, however, I’m one of the few people on the planet whose eyes might tear up over a sound profit and loss report at a heritage site. And Plimoth’s is that. Whereas just a few years ago, the tale of its 990 was not one to read before bedtime, today it is much improved. The institution is breaking even (without endowment mischief or a single ghost tour), which is more than can be said for most sites and, frankly, near the goal (after all, it’s a non-profit, not a Starbucks). Paid visitorship is about 300,000 a year, nearly half of Colonial Williamsburg’s actual (rather than mathematically modified) attendance in 2013, and Plimoth has a fraction of CW’s staff and financial resources (it certainly says something about the price and value points of Plimoth’s tickets). Even the gift shops–perhaps the most ill-managed potential generator of revenue at heritage sites–are producing profits after a thoughtful reorganization.
There are, of course, potential cracks. The staff is way too small to keep up such a pace as their leaders have set for them. And the place has serious infrastructure needs, such as a proper research library. Moreover, with so many balls in the air, any number of them could be dropped. But with the infectious enthusiasm of converts, they inspire nothing but confidence that they’ll achieve their goals. At least, if they’re going to run into the walls built for them by the business of public history, they’re going to run into them at full speed. In any case, they are already succeeding in creating an energy that can’t be found at most heritage sites these days, engaging guests about those quite particular Puritans and Wampanoag alike in ways that generate excitement about the future and faith that what we can learn there can help us effect that future, especially when it comes to the nature of religious freedom and an appreciation of different cultures and how not to resolve disputes between them. Any place that can create that much excitement for tomorrow, while responsibly focusing on the lives of dour people who have been dead for 400 years, well, that’s some magic, and I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be part of it.
So potential donors should keep out that check book and get a pen. As for me, I have a syllabus to rewrite.