Changing tastes and attitudes about American history have long been a source of decline for Colonial Williamsburg, the living history museum and private foundation that tell the story of Virginia’s early days.
But now, the once-popular vacation destination is ramping up to survival mode. It is planning to outsource commercial operations such as its golf courses, retail stores and commercial real estate management. Dozens of layoffs are expected.
Created by local leaders and the foundation associated with John D. Rockefeller Jr. of Standard Oil fame in 1926, the project helped store scores of structures dating back centuries and also built historically correct replicas. Museums were added, along with restaurants and pathways.
For the 1920s, the project was considered an exciting pioneer that could combine being a vacation spot with outside classrooms. Although situated along train tracks, Colonial Williamsburg was a destination for relatively new automobile drivers.
It did, however, represent a point of view of history that was skewed in favor of conservative, white Anglo-Saxons. Its views of slavery reflected Jim Crow. African Americans could visit the exhibits and some had jobs as reenactors, but, until integration, they couldn’t stay in any of the project’s hotels or eat in its restaurants.
As late as 2000, an African American cashier at a Colonial Williamsburg hotel was threatened with disciplinary action because she had dyed her hair blond with an orange tint. She noted that white employees regularly died their hair blond with no repercussions.
Colonial Williamsburg has been struggling with outdated imagery for years, which is why the number of its visitors peaked 30 or so years ago. It always seemed like a place your parents or grandparents would go. That was my case. When my family lived in Bethesda in the 1950s, my parents would take us to Williamsburg on a regular basis. A sign of the times was the souvenir they bought me when I was 5 years old: a pint-sized, grey kepi soldier’s hat with the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag on its top.
This is unlikely to happen today. Mitchell Reiss, president and chief executive of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Board of Trustees, alluded to the reasons why in a widely shared letter about the current woes: “For a variety of reasons — business decisions made in years past, less American history being taught in schools, changing times and tastes that cause us to attract half of the visitors we did 30 years ago — the Foundation loses significant amounts of money every year.”
Last year, the foundation lost $54 million, but it ended 2016 with $300 million of debt. That debt was incurred to upgrade facilities. At this rate, the $684 million foundation endowment could be used up within eight years, he says.
To be sure, there are plenty of tourist attractions up and down the peninsula on Interstate 64, such as Busch Gardens and Water Country U.S.A. But the news about Colonial Williamsburg still is sad.
One way to spiff things up would be to make the exhibits and the narrative more thorough and nuanced. It has to try to tone down its monied, white-toast milieu and open itself up to a more diverse America. Its glory days are clearly over, but some existential changes could help it survive.
Peter Galuszka is a regular contributor to All Opinions Are Local.