Colonial Williamsburg

In case the last post about my trip to the CZAP Project excavation in Kurdistan didn’t make you jealous enough, this post deals with a trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA. I was invited over to discuss our exciting new collaboration on the Performing the Past Summer School which teaches the basics of costumed interpretation.

After the crowds had gone home

After the crowds had gone home

As I mentioned in last year’s postcard, Colonial Williamsburg is a hard place to get your head around due to the sheer range of facilities. This time I was staying right in the heart of the Historic Area for two weeks and I got to see the full scope of what Williamburg has to offer.

The Governor's mansion

The Governor’s mansion

Firstly the site has it’s own state of the art museum and stores which hold both examples of furnishings and objects from the period and the wonderful Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Behind the scenes its educational facilities are also top notch and include a TV studio where they film footage for their Electronic Field Trips.

The new-old tinsmith's shop

The new-old tinsmith’s shop

The Foundation also oversees the original and reconstructed buildings which are furnished to the standards of the time. In these buildings you may find costumed guides giving tours or the craftspeople and apprentices who form Williamsburg’s ‘trades’ department. With everything from baskets to wig making going on you can spend days just walking around talking to these extremely knowledgeable individuals. However, I was there for two reasons 1) to look at the live interpretation and (2) to explore my research into the reintroduction of ‘hidden’ or ‘silenced’ voices at heritage sites.

Great Hope Plantations

Great Hopes Plantation

On the second point, as Gable and Handler (1997)‘s study of the site makes clear, Williamsburg has always had trouble reconciling the nostalgic elements of its reconstruction with the less palatable aspects of its past. Since 1979 the site has had an African American programme which tells the stories of these enslaved and freed people who made up half of the population of the city. I attended an incredibly moving workshop called ‘Workin’ the Soil, Healing the Soul’ which was delivered in third person and took visitors through the experiences of enslaved people at a plantation site. It’s easy to miss Great Hopes if you jump on the bus to the Historic Area but I would urge visitors to take time to talk with these incredible interpreters. It is challenging but you need to experience it.

'The Hated Spy'

‘The Hated Spy’

The challenges of telling the whole story of Williamsburg can also be witnessed in the Historic Area where staff are constantly discussing and debating how programmes such as ‘Revolution in the Streets’ can convey the full range of historical lived experiences. Watching ‘The Hated Spy’ or ‘Jumpin’ the Broom’ made it hard, for me at least, to simply tune out and enjoy the beauty of the place and forced me to engage with these complex and contradictory aspects of the past. As I was over there on a research grant I got to talk to the team behind this research and interpretation. Williamsburg as an organisation, and individual interpreters, sometimes ‘get flack’ for their depiction of the past but it’s clear that they’re tough on themselves and are always trying to improve what they do. It’ll be interesting to see how the site develops over the next couple of years and I’m really looking forward to welcoming some of their team on ‘Performing the Past’ this summer.

The fife and drums

The Fifes and Drums

Museum Studies and Costumed Interpretation Summer Schools

Exciting news! We are running summer schools in the museum this year. The University of Reading has a whole suite of International Summer Schools designed to give people a taster of academic life and we’re looking forward to welcoming some new students over the summer months.

Ure Symposium

Introduction to Museum Studies is aimed at students who want to explore some of the theoretical and practical challenges which face museum curators. This course will include the opportunity to explore: UK Museum History and Ethics; Interpretation and Education; Collections Management and Conservation.The course runs 7th-18th July 2014 right here behind the scenes at the museum.

Performing the Past is being offered via an exciting collaboration between the University of Reading’s Museums and Collections, our Film, Theatre and Television Department, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Historical Royal Palaces and Past Pleasures. Learn the basics of costumed interpretation in beautiful surroundings with guidance form the UK’s oldest costumed interpretation company. The course runs 21st July-1stĀ August 2014.

The application process is outlined by the International Office on their Summer School website. Reading alumni and their families get a special discount. Book now!