The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburgby Richard Handler, Eric Gable
The New History in an Old Museum is an exploration of "historical truth" as presented at Colonial Williamsburg. More than a detailed history of a museum and tourist attraction, it examines the packaging of American history, and consumerism and the manufacturing of cultural beliefs. Through extensive fieldwork—including numerous site visits, interviews with employees and visitors, and archival research—Richard Handler and Eric Gable illustrate how corporate sensibility blends with pedagogical principle in Colonial Williamsburg to blur the lines between education and entertainment, patriotism and revisionism.
During much of its existence, the "living museum" at Williamsburg has been considered a patriotic shrine, celebrating the upscale lifestyles of Virginia’s colonial-era elite. But in recent decades a new generation of social historians has injected a more populist and critical slant to the site’s narrative of nationhood. For example, in interactions with museum visitors, employees now relate stories about the experiences of African Americans and women, stories that several years ago did not enter into descriptions of life in Colonial Williamsburg. Handler and Gable focus on the way this public history is managed, as historians and administrators define historiographical policy and middle-level managers train and direct front-line staff to deliver this "product" to the public. They explore how visitors consume or modify what they hear and see, and reveal how interpreters and craftspeople resist or acquiesce in being managed. By deploying the voices of these various actors in a richly textured narrative, The New History in an Old Museum highlights the elements of cultural consensus that emerge from this cacophony of conflict and negotiation.
“In this impressive ethnography of Williamsburg, Handler and Gable take us behind the scenes and show us the roles of professional historians, front-line interpreters, corporate officials, and service workers in shaping the portrait of eighteenth-century Virginia that is presented. I know of no other book that presents such a complete and complex portrait of the museum as a social, economic, and cultural institution.”—Roy Rosenzweig, George Mason University
“This manuscript is a deep and original work of cultural critique. It will go a long way in improving the image of cultural studies scholarship among historians, anthropologists, and others, who hold it in suspicion. I am sure this study will be much cited as such an exemplar in several fields.”—George E. Marcus, Rice University
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The New History in an Old Museum
Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg
By Richard Handler, Eric Gable
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The New History in an Old Museum
There is no more evocative symbol for the current state of American history museums than the horse droppings that decorate the neat streets of Colonial Williamsburg—America's premier outdoor history museum. Manure is authentic dirt, an instance and symbol of natural disorder. Museums are carefully managed realms of classification where every thing is kept in its place. If Colonial Williamsburg lets the horse chips fall where they may, and indeed wants those chips to be something every visitor notices, what does that signify?
Colonial Williamsburg is a place not ordinarily associated with a dirty past. For many years, the museum has attracted a million visitors annually, people who come to see a tidy and elegant Revolutionary-era community. They come to watch the fife-and-drum corps and the militia parade down the Duke of Gloucester Street, or to observe the many craftspeople—blacksmiths, gunsmiths, silversmiths, weavers, coopers, cooks, and many others— hard at work. On sweltering summer days, these visitors are willing to stand in long lines to enter the well-appointed homes of the colonial burghers, where they will admire the furnishings of a satisfying domesticity—the wallpaper, the draperies, the furniture, the prints, the dried flowers, the china on which are set the simulacra of meats, pastries, and fruits. They wish to gaze at the good life, and they eagerly buy expensive reproductions or facsimilies of what they see displayed in the town's restored houses. Ultimately these visitors come, so nearly every one of them will tell you, to learn about "the past," "their past"—the collective truth about the way life "really was" back at the founding of the great American nation.
At Colonial Williamsburg, manure on otherwise clean streets signifies something about the way Americans generally think of life in "their past." Life was at once less pleasant and more organic—closer to nature. But the recent purposeful leaving of horse droppings on the streets also signifies something about a change in the way Colonial Williamsburg wishes to portray the past. The manure represents the coming of the new social history.
Social history came to Colonial Williamsburg in the 1970s. It had developed, so say its acolytes, out of the turmoil of the previous decade as a new way of telling the American story. And it was brought to Colonial Williamsburg at a time of declining visitation. According to social history's proponents in the museum, the entrenched version of the American story focused too narrowly on "great men" and elites, and ignored the works and lives of the vast majority of the American population. Moreover, it was too exclusively celebratory. It privileged national consensus and ignored social conflict, thereby cleansing American history of oppression, exploitation, injustice, and struggle. That fewer Americans were coming to Colonial Williamsburg indicated that after Vietnam, Watergate, and the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement, the public was no longer willing to buy the old history of consensus and celebration. The new social history was meant to redress the balance and reclaim Colonial Williamsburg's market share. The museum would continue to celebrate American identity and American community, but it would no longer be silent about past injustices and their ramifications in the present. In short, the past that social history introduced into the museum was to be a dirtier past, both literally and metaphorically.
The new social history challenged established history making in another, perhaps more profound way. It was more explicitly "constructionist" or "relativistic" than the histories it sought to supplant. Its proponents argued that historical truths are socially produced by particular people with particular interests and biases. The truths embodied in historical stories are thus not absolute or universal, but relative to the cultural context in which they are made. Other people, elsewhere, might use the same events and facts to tell different histories or, prompted by the desire to tell different stories, might work to discover previously overlooked facts. The new social historians wanted to acquaint the public with these constructionist arguments. They wanted to encourage their audiences to think critically about the relationship of present-day politics and culture to the histories they were hearing, reading, or seeing. If history, anybody's history, had an agenda, how was one to recognize it? From this critical perspective the authoritarian objectivism of history museums had to be challenged, and the museum had to be made to teach a different theory of history.
When they were brought onboard in the mid-1970s, the new generation of social historians and administrators knew that changing Colonial Williamsburg would not be an easy task. Blocking the way, first, were the interests and attitudes of those who sponsored the patriotic ideology the institution had always purveyed. Critics of museums in general, and of Colonial Williamsburg in particular, have long pointed out that these venerable institutions represent hegemonic values, values congenial to the elites who establish, fund, and administer them. At Colonial Williamsburg, the American story had been a story celebrating the success of the colonial upper crust, and, by extension, of wealthy individuals like the Rockefellers who used philanthropy to link their genealogies to the American founding fathers. Not only did this version of the Williamsburg story celebrate these great men, it also celebrated America's greatness, asserting that every American citizen has a fair chance of achieving similar success because the American social order, based on universal democratic values, is fundamentally just. The entrenched Williamsburg story, then, affirmed the status quo. Thus it was (and is) reasonable to suppose that those who profited from the status quo—those who controlled the museum—would resist changing that story.
A second obstacle to change was built into the very structure of the institution. Colonial Williamsburg was set up, in the late 1920s, as a hybrid organization, a nonprofit foundation with one "side" devoted to the general business of running the place and the other devoted to the museum's cultural and educational work. When the museum became a mass tourist destination after World War II, it developed increasingly complex organizational structures and routines for dealing with a large, paying public. Like many other large museums, it increasingly found itself operating on the border between mass entertainment and mass education. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's mission statement spoke of high educational principles, but the museum catered to an audience that was not captive, and one, moreover, that was often "on vacation." If the social historians were to change the history that Colonial Williamsburg told, they would have to prove that a new history was what their audiences wanted, or at least that revisionism could be compatible with commercial viability.
Despite these obstacles, Colonial Williamsburg's new historians and administrators launched bold initiatives, both historiographical and organizational, to remake the foundation. And certainly by the time we began extended field research there, in early 1990, the stories that were being told on the "front line"—that is, on the museum-city's streets, where museum staff members meet visitors—were rather different from those reported for earlier times. For example, it is difficult to imagine a newspaper journalist in the 1950s beginning a feature article on Colonial Williamsburg with a discussion of "road apples," but that is what we found in the Sunday paper as we were writing this chapter in the summer of 1994. The lead article in the travel section, entitled "Authenticity: Colonial Williamsburg Strives for That 18th-Century Atmosphere, Right Down to the Road Apples," began:
That was my mother's euphemism for horse droppings. Road apples.
When I first, uh, stumbled upon them as I was strolling down the middle of Nicholson Street in Colonial Williamsburg, I was—elated!
Would you find road apples littering Main Street, U.S.A., in Florida's Walt Disney World? Never!
You'll find them here, though; and that fact says a lot about what Colonial Williamsburg is—and what it isn't.
For years, Colonial Williamsburg was burdened with a reputation— among a somewhat cynical group of travelers who, no doubt, thought of themselves as the cognoscenti—as a too-cute, too-contrived, Dis-neyesque re-creation of what was once the capital of the British colony of Virginia. A historical theme park.
But that is precisely what it isn't....
It is authenticity that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ... has sought since John D. Rockefeller Jr. began funding the restoration ... in 1926.
Having asserted that authenticity is Colonial Williamsburg's mission, the author continued by describing a sampling of the museum's offerings. Highest on his list was the Other Half Tour, which offered "an education about one of the sorrier chapters in the nation's history," teaching that "it was the large slave population that allowed this town's residents to maintain their atypically high-level colonial lifestyle." Here, in a nutshell, we found two of the key topics the social historians had worked into the revised Williamsburg story: the history of previously excluded people such as African American slaves, and the Social history of consumerism, of the material culture of everyday life.
The rest of the article, however, dwelt on themes and scenes that have played at Colonial Williamsburg for half a century: the Raleigh Tavern and the Capitol, where "the first stirrings of the movement for American independence found root"; the Peyton Randolph House and the Governor's Palace, "where visitors can get the best view of how Williamsburg's 18th-century gentry lived, dressed, ate and amused themselves"; and the ubiquitous costumed colonial craft-workers. Finally, the two color photographs that dominated the article on the printed page countered the social historians' road apples with thoroughly conventional images of Colonial Williamsburg: tulips, white clapboard buildings and white picket fences, and (as the caption puts it) the "fife and drum corps delivering] a splash of color as well as Revolutionary War period music."
In this newspaper article, road apples and tulips, slavery and patriotism coexist in textual space as if they belong together. Assembled, they add up to a single thing—"authenticity." Yet, as we were to discover as we conducted anthropological field research in the museum-city over a period of two years, these images can also represent mutually contradictory paradigms of a collective past. To people who work at or visit Colonial Williamsburg, shit and tulips, slavery and Revolutionary-era soldiers can be seen as opposing icons representing the struggle between critical history and celebratory history, a dirty past and a Disney past, a new history and an old one.
As juxtaposed paradigms, new history and old also have come to represent opposed sides in what conservative intellectuals have managed to characterize as a "culture war." According to them, the so-called tenured radicals have infiltrated American institutions of higher learning and subverted them, waging an insurgent campaign against every foundational value—the true, the good—that makes this civilization great. Although they assert that the insurgency is widespread in the liberal arts, they emphasize that a particular point of subversion has been in the teaching of history.
Recently, conservative critics have found museum exhibits mounted by social historians to be particularly apt targets for what they envision as a counterattack against an entrenched academic radicalism. The controversies surrounding "The West as America" exhibit at the National Museum of American Art and the attempt by curators at the National Air and Space Museum to portray a revisionist history of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have made public and plausible the conservative critique. In the more extreme forms of the conservative position, American history is a narrative of progress, which, however, is constandy in danger of losing its pedagogic power if it is stripped of its essential optimism. From such a perspective, there is a fine line between putting manure on the streets of an American shrine for the sake of verisimilitude and besmirching American identity by dwelling on what is dirty about the nation's collective past. The new social history is often portrayed as crossing that line and erasing virtue by rubbing Americans' noses in their collective villainy or victimhood.
Unlike the curators who mounted "The West as America" exhibit or those who tried to mount the Enola Gay exhibit, Colonial Williamsburg's social historians have never been a prominent target of conservative critique. Yet because the new social history has been assimilated into Colonial Williamsburg's narrative of nationhood, this site is a perfect place to study how Americans who work at and visit it recognize and reconcile conflicting versions of the past in the vernacular. This book is our attempt to put into an ethnographic context what for the most part has become uncontested polemic. A guiding question for us is: To what extent have the radical messages of the new social history become common belief and practice at Colonial Williamsburg? By looking at what happens to history on the ground in a particular place, at a particular time, we will show that social history has hardly had the kind of insurgent effect its critics claim for it.
The Museum as a Social Arena
This book is an anthropological study of Colonial Williamsburg, an American history museum and a modern nonprofit corporation. Our work is part of a burgeoning new scholarship focusing on museums as arenas for the significant convergence of political and cultural forces. Intellectual developments both within and beyond the academy have made it impossible to continue to view museums as simple repositories of cultural and historical treasures. Questions about what counts as a cultural treasure—or even what counts as culture—about what history means, and about who has the power to assign value to cultural and historical productions have been too pointedly raised to allow established cultural institutions to continue business as usual.
The new scholarship on museums originates in a variety of disciplines—anthropology, archaeology, art history, cultural studies, history, literature, and philosophy. Despite differing disciplinary traditions, most of this work addresses a common set of interconnected concerns. First are questions about cultural representation: How do museums collect, classify, and display material artifacts to convey images of various human groups understood to be culturally different? And in what terms, more generally, is cultural difference evaluated in museums? Next are questions about the ideologies and interests that underpin or are reinforced by those representations of culture: Who establishes museums and who chooses their contents? What ideological propositions subtend those choices? Whose interests are served by the particular visions of cultural difference that museum displays authori2e? Finally, there are questions about audiences: How do museums construct their audiences by welcoming some visitors but discouraging others? How do audiences receive—accept, resist, or reinterpret—the messages museums convey?
These common questions can be pursued in a variety of ways, but most museum scholarship to date has confined itself to a rather narrow range of what anthropologists sometimes call data. Museums produce messages, or meaningful statements and actions. Scholars and critics of museums try to answer the sorts of questions mentioned above by reading, or interpreting, those messages. Due largely to disciplinary conventions, most scholars who study museums work from already produced messages—that is, they examine museum exhibits, texts about such exhibits (whether the catalogs that accompany them or the critical responses they provoke), other texts produced by museums (gift catalogs, public relations and fund-raising brochures, glossy periodicals such as Smithsonian and Colonial Williamsburg), and, for those whose topic is historical, the usual array of documents that can cast light on the values and intentions of earlier generations of museum founders, patrons, directors, and curators. A partial exception to this generalization is research on audience response, for this sort of work in a sense creates texts by interviewing or surveying museum visitors and recording their responses. Still, most audience research is conducted after the fact—after the visit has occurred—and in this sense remains a study of a completed text, a past response (although, clearly, visitors tailor their account of their responses according to the interview or survey situation in which they find themselves).
As valuable as much of this research is, very little of it focuses on the museum as a social arena in which many people of differing backgrounds continuously and routinely interact to produce, exchange, and consume messages. Some scholars have attended to aspects of institutional histories and dynamics, but there has been almost no ethnographic inquiry into museums as arenas of ongoing, organized activities. As a result, most research on museums has proceeded by ignoring much of what happens in them. Museum scholars have exhaustively studied what we have called already completed museum messages, but only rarely have they examined the institutional life through which museum workers and audiences create those messages.
Anthropological fieldwork is a research method well suited to avoid this oversight. The basic intention of our research project was to study the production and consumption of museum messages in relation to the institutional context in which those processes occurred. How, we asked, might museum exhibits take shape and change as they pass through the various phases of their development within a large organization like Colonial Williamsburg? What do different people—curators, historians, education specialists, frontline interpreters, visitors—contribute to the making of those messages? What are the different kinds of social interactions in which museum meanings are generated?
Excerpted from The New History in an Old Museum by Richard Handler, Eric Gable. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Richard Handler is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia.
Eric Gable is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Mary Washington College.
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