J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Changes at Colonial Williamsburg

On this Evacuation Day, I’m evacuating Boston for a weekend in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the American Revolution Conference.

Earlier this month the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported at length on that history site’s adjustment to a new director with new ideas:
For Halloween weekend last fall, Colonial Williamsburg rolled out “Blackbeard’s Revenge,” a slate of spooky events that included free trick-or-treating; costume contests; “pirate games”; pumpkin decorating; tours of the jail, where interpreters portrayed imprisoned “undead” buccaneers; and a grave digger who related “tales of burying Blackbeard’s crew.”

Mitchell Reiss, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s president and CEO and the architect of a series of overhauls since he took over in late 2014, said the weekend was an unqualified success, drawing 10,000 people over two nights.

Roughly 80 percent of first-time visitors surveyed said they would return.

“Unless you can get people to come, you can’t engage them. You can’t educate them, and you can’t inspire them,” Reiss said. “The Blackbeard story was fun, it was accurate-ish. But you know, it got people here and they had a great time.” . . .

Reiss also has presided over major changes to staffing and programs and green-lit the foundation’s first-ever Super Bowl ad, which featured footage of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ignited a wave of social media backlash and negative news coverage. It was the first of a new three-part ad campaign.

The cumulative effect has some critics questioning whether the foundation is losing sight of its educational mission and historical focus in favor of chasing what may prove to be a more fickle type of tourist. Others see encouraging strides in a new direction. . . .

Visitation peaked at 1.2 million a year in the mid-1970s, partly the result of bicentennial fervor but also for less tangible reasons.

“It was a different America. We took more vacations. We taught more history in schools. We didn’t have iPads and iPhones to distract us and reduce our attention span to nanoseconds. We maybe even were more patriotic in a way and more aware of history,” Reiss said.

“All of these have combined to place some challenges in front of us and in front of other historic sites and museums across the country. We have to address them head-on. We can’t pretend that they don’t exist.”

Individual ticket sales, not including promotional tickets that were given to groups and counted in the past whether or not they were used, rose from 474,299 in 2014 to 480,007 in 2015, a modest increase but one that reverses a years-long downward trend, the foundation said. . . .

For 2015, expenses were down $300,000 compared with 2014, and revenue was up nearly $7 million in the same period, along with hotel occupancy, which increased by 7 percentage points, and meals served, up 4 percent.
I hadn’t realized till reading this article that Reiss isn’t a historian, though he has a doctorate (in international relations) and an academic background (as president of Washington College in Maryland). That might be why he’s so eager to win over a larger constituency, and comfortable with the term “accurate-ish.”


G. Lovely said...

Alas, when one has the responsibility for making budgets and trying to keep an institution afloat, "ish" is not an unworthy goal.

Chaucerian said...

Mr. Lovely makes an interesting point. I'm pretty sure that when my mother brought my brother and me to visit CW in the middle '50's, she was not drawn by issues of historic accuracy -- and here I am, visiting frequently, and vigorously considering whether costumed Hallowe'en is an appropriate activity at CW --

J. L. Bell said...

That's why I appreciated the article including figures for visitors, revenue, and other measures of sustainability. Unless comparable sites are showing even better performance in this economy, they suggest that the current push at Colonial Williamsburg is improving the place's long-term prospects. The counterargument, I suppose, is that if the long-term includes nothing but anachronistic holidays, ghost tours, and skating rinks, it's not worth sustaining as a "historic" site but rather as a theme park with a historic theme.

Karen A. Chase said...

King's Dominion is near enough to Williamsburg if a tourist wants a theme park experience, and I hope CW never installs a rollercoaster that is loosely themed on George Wythe's life? While I understand the drive to improve attendance, doing so by being "ish" about history not only misses the mission of continuing to educate about history, but shows a lack of creativity in programming. Can we not have both accuracy and an exciting historical experience (for adults and children) at the same time? I look forward to having more chats about this at the conference in CW this weekend, and to meeting you in person.

Historical Ken said...

We are having much the same issue here in Michigan with Greenfield Village.
It's all about the buck.

T. Schwitzgebel said...

It may be hard for a history lover to see these types of events, but I believe there is a means to an end here. Get the parents excited about a unique experience for their children (trick-or-treat). Once there, now show them your "A" game and demonstrate how fun and educational Williamsburg can be. Because let's face it - History and learning about it sadly has very negative connotations to many people young and old in the US. It's all memorization of dates and events. Putting on the Williamsburg charm may not win them all over, but it will win a good many. And getting a person to fondly remember a childhood experience is probably another generation of return visitors.