In his opinion piece “It’s time to update a struggling Colonial Williamsburg” Peter Galuska questioned Colonial Williamsburg’s approach to historical interpretation. He mentioned visiting with his parents when he was 5 in the 1950s. I hope he’s been back since, but I’m not sure. His impressions of Colonial Williamsburg seem stuck in the past.
His ideas about our programming, our perspective and our people are, shall we say, a little dated. Colonial Williamsburg, though admittedly facing financial challenges, remains America’s greatest living history museum exactly because we’re telling America’s – and all Americans’ – enduring story.
Since I arrived as Colonial Williamsburg’s president in 2014, we’ve kicked off numerous programs to tell a more comprehensive American story. Colonial Williamsburg has:
- Hired six full-time interpreters to deliver a range of nuanced Native American perspectives;
- Expanded the program at the Randolph site that centers on the paradox of slavery and freedom during the Revolution;
- Developed cutting-edge theatrical programming, such as “Journey to Redemption,” in which actor-interpreters share the challenges they confront in their portrayals of the enslaved and slaveholders of 18th-century America;
- Launched the Revolutionaries in Residence program, hosting food historian and “Afroculinaria” blogger Michael Twitty, actor and scholar Chaz Mena and filmmaker Ric Burns;
- Expanded community partnerships with institutions such as the First Baptist Church to reckon with Williamsburg’s and America’s racial past;
- Started Mama Said, Papa Said, an interactive program that explores the significance of African oral tradition as enslaved people share cultural values from the stories of the past told to them by their elders;
- Created new African American characters that represent a range of perspectives from 18th-century Virginia — from James Armistead Lafayette (Revolutionary War spy) to Aggy, an enslaved woman who fought for and won her freedom in court;
- Partnered with UNESCO’s Slave Route Project in Paris to develop SlaveryandRemembrance.org website;
Colonial Williamsburg’s core mission — historic preservation, education and museums – will never change. But how we draw people to it must. We will continue to offer innovative, historically accurate interpretive programming that tells our collective story better than ever.
Mitchell B. Reiss is president and chief executive of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.