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Scripting History

Culture wars challenge historical museums

Robert Llewellyn

“You’ll be touring Colonial Williamsburg,” says Richard Handler, a UVA anthropology professor and associate dean for academic programs, “and stopping at, say, Raleigh Tavern. The guide is completely candid: ‘You’re looking at a reconstruction. The building burned in 1816 and was rebuilt in the 1930s the way it was thought to be, but we now know there are details that just aren’t right.’ Yet by the end of the tour, you’re in a meeting room in the tavern when [the guide] will say, ‘And this is the very room where the patriots met to debate the revolution.’” Such doublespeak, Handler maintains, not only prompts head scratching among the crowds who tour the nation’s most renowned living history museum, but reflects an identity crisis afflicting the institution itself. Just as most of its guides don periwigs and breeches, yet address visitors not as characters reciting scripts, but as historical “interpreters” parlaying information, corporate Williamsburg seems a soul divided.

Is it entertaining vacationers or teaching them? Provoking critical thinking or perpetuating myth?

A decade ago, in The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, Handler and Mary Washington University anthropology professor Eric Gable set out to see how America manufactures its collective memory. Today, their concerns still disclose an ongoing tension. As Handler says, “Presenting history to the public through objects presents problems that writing history doesn’t.” For example, in Williamsburg and its spin-offs, can the remarkable, sensual re-creation of the past—the “authentic” structures, the flouncing skirts and footnoted detail—so overwhelm visitors that they forget that these, after all, are simulations? Are they bedazzled by first-rate theater or grounded in sound historical theory?

Historical theory—there’s the rub. History, we now understand, is Hydra-headed and many tongued. While Napoleon quipped that it’s a tale the winners tell, the philosopher George Santayana saw it as the lesson we all must learn. There’s the “great men” history of Thomas Carlyle, champion of kings and heroes; and there’s Marxist history, out of Hegel, charting the dialectic of socioeconomic currents. Courtesy of the French Annales School, “history from below” advocates for the marginalized—the seaman, for instance, rather than the admiral; the maid, not the mistress. Postmodern theory also factors in, its disciples holding that narratives conservative historians claim as factual are really chronicles encoded by hegemonic forces—in short, propaganda.

For Handler, Williamsburg became a battleground in the right/left “culture wars” of the ’90s and beyond, an institution resident scholars fought to reshape in the image of ’60s-derived critically trenchant “social history,” as against the reflexively bugle-blowing history enshrined at the museum since its founding in 1926 by John D. Rockefeller. Here, a great epistemological debate continues to play out, Handler says, “between ‘objectivists,’ who think that knowledge can be objectively amassed and truthful and ‘constructivists,’ who regard it as the product of cultural or historical settings and therefore always relative. This raises the great question: ‘What is the nature of truth?’”

As far back as the Bicentennial, when Colonial Williamsburg’s attendance peaked at around 1.2 million, there was a move away from the old patriotic history to present a critical, populist history. Yet, at Williamsburg, he points out, “the medium works against that message, because the public sees all these buildings and thinks they’re ‘real.’ And, in some ways, the museum wants or allows them to believe that. Basically, the institution is caught between two positions.”

Tape recorders in hand, Gable and Handler repeatedly viewed Williamsburg’s 40 major attractions, interviewing scores of its 3,000 employees. What emerged was a defensiveness summed up by one worker’s protestation: “We are not some Republican Disneyland.”

They hardly sneaked in as iconoclastic guerillas. The scholars were invited to train apprising eyes on the enterprise by the museum’s Harvard-credentialed social historian, Cary Carson. Handler lauds Carson’s welcome—“Very few museums let you into their backstages,” he says—while speculating that The New History in an Old Museum didn’t endear itself to Williamsburg’s corporate board. Their critical study probably left the core audience unfazed. “They come because it’s a family tradition,” he says. “Ask them why they’re here and they say, ‘It’s our history, it’s important.’ But when you ask them why it’s important, they often can’t reply. Their response to being asked about what they learn gets confused with how much they simply enjoyed the experience.”

And what’s wrong with that? Not much, if visitors see the park as Handler does, as a nice resort. “Compared to Disneyland and those kinds of places, it’s inexpensive. It’s very gentle. It’s a little silly, but if I had kids and wanted to go somewhere not very serious for a relaxing weekend, I’d certainly recommend it,” he says.

Yet neither “silly” nor even “relaxing” conforms to the museum’s avowed pedagogical mission. Such descriptions risk becoming offensive when applied to Williamsburg’s re-enactment of a subject historical veracity requires it to depict: slavery.

It’s one subject that all Southern museums must confront. And, Handler says, “Because it’s hard to present slavery in any ‘feel good’ way, they whitewash it. Williamsburg does have a black interpretive corps. And they’re caught in all kinds of contradictions. They want to tell the true story, but they want it to be one that dignifies their ancestors. Guides will say, ‘How do you think it feels to play the role of slave?’ We’ve seen people play downtrodden roles, which makes the white audience incredibly uncomfortable, but the more common role is the strong, resourceful black ancestor. Not many black people go to Williamsburg, and that’s an issue for management. But whitewashing black history happens because one of the primary motivations of the place is to get repeat customers, and how can you tell the story of slavery and get people to want to come back?”

Making nice with the visitors, of course, is one way to solicit repeat business, but even here tension arises. So problematic is the guide’s entertainer/teacher role that should an attempt be made to analyze or weave in fact, the guide is derided as a pedant, too authoritative. But if the guide settles for “a kind of airline-attendant thing,” Handler says, she’s dismissed. Extensively trained yet underpaid, the guides embody ambivalence: “They’re caught between educating and appeasing. They have a combination of anger and a lot of pride in their jobs,” Handler says. “They live with contradictions they can’t resolve. And when we’d criticize the general historiographical contradiction at Williamsburg between constructivism and objectivism, they’d defend the institution.”

However fretfully adamant, the defense by its frontline employees may not have been necessary, Handler has come to think, because the new/old history battle at Williamsburg has been decided for a while. “In the end, all we can say is that social history came to the museum in the ’70s, and by the ’80s and ’90s, the left-wing social historians were in control of the agenda. And yet so deeply anchored is the celebratory, patriotic story,” he says, “that a critical message doesn’t get out nearly as loudly as you’d think. You can certainly pick up strands of social or critical history, but the dominant message is still one of celebration. In a sense, the myth overwhelms the criticism.”

A Tour With More

Another perspective on the Lawn

Jack Looney

Jefferson was 6 feet 2 inches. Time art critic Robert Hughes considers the Rotunda library America’s most beautiful room. Elizabeth Taylor once unwittingly plunked herself down on one of the Rotunda’s priceless sofas, verboten to visitors. Chock-full of such facts, the UVA Lawn Tour leans toward the architectural, the anecdotal, even the whimsical. It’s delivered by expertly trained, enthusiastic student guides. Another kind of tour, christened “Slave to Scholar” and now redubbed the “History of African-Americans Tour,” was created in 2002 by Erin-Marie Burke (Col ’03) when she was a member of the University Guide Service.

Jade Craig Jack Looney

Whereas the Lawn Tour concentrates on the University’s 1816 founding and ends roughly around 1825, the African-American version begins with early UVA and slave experiences there, then considers the school’s role in the Civil War, in the segregation years, and in the civil rights era, when open admissions finally began in 1969. One of the tour’s original guides was Jade Craig (Col ’06), now a kindergarten teacher with Teach for America in Mississippi. He remembers vividly the numerous times he conducted the tour—and the different receptions it received. “White audiences often didn’t have many questions. They tended to be quiet and somber,” he says. “I think they didn’t ask a lot of questions because they didn’t want to say the wrong thing. They were trying to be sensitive and respectful. Black audiences, though, were always asking questions, wanting to know all kinds of things: What was slave life actually like? Why did University leaders want to preserve the school as an all-male, all-white institution? What was it like for the first black students who went here?”

Originally conducted weekly during Black History month, the tour is now slated for more regular rotation as soon as all guides have been trained.


The bad with the good

Monticello Dan Addison

Even the standard Monticello tour has its bombshell moments. Just minutes into her half-hour presentation, the guide drops the name “Sally Hemings” and there’s a nervous shifting in the crowd’s attention. Hemings was the slave with whom Thomas Jefferson purportedly shared a 38-year relationship. Matter-of-factly, the guide announces that it’s the Monticello Foundation’s position that most probably Jefferson fathered one, if not all, of her six children, a finding based on 1998 DNA evidence. In fact, the tour begins with the information that the Palladio-derived home, while designed by America’s third president, was built by some 80 of his enslaved workers. And, as visitors breeze through its fine library and parlor hung with portraits of Enlightenment sages, they’re shown a ground plan of the University of Virginia. Part of the Academical Village’s purpose, the guide makes clear, was to host thinkers who could figure out a solution to the problem of slavery, one that Jefferson himself could not. Monticello’s special Plantation Community Tour is a depth charge. Here, the curious visitor learns in unsparing detail about labor along Mulberry Row, center of slave life atop the “little mountain.” Six days a week, dawn to dusk, most starting at age 10, these slaves forged Monticello’s nails, cooked its meals, toiled in its fields. The Marquis de Lafayette, Jefferson’s comrade-at-arms and a stout abolitionist, entreated their master to stop the practice of buying and selling human beings, but earned only the reply that Jefferson would “pray” about it.

The Plantation tour debuted in 1993, alongside Getting Word, an oral history project tracing the descendants of plantation families. Launched by Monticello senior research historian Lucia Stanton and her colleague, Dianne Swann-Wright (Grad ’00), its impetus was “to balance the testimony of the enslaved community, because it was so overweighted in Jefferson’s favor, with his 60,000 surviving documents,” Stanton says.

Interviewing descendents of Hemings and other families, she has been surprised often by long silences, gaps in memory. “I started off naively imagining we’d get stories about life at Monticello and, now that we’re about four to eight generations on, we’ve found that so many of those stories didn’t survive,” she says. “That’s striking, because in African-American families the oral method of transmission is so important. Yet what’s extraordinary,” she continues, “is how the stories of slavery have been erased. Families don’t want to talk about it. It was a painful story and one that was often abandoned.”

For Stanton, rescuing that story meant penning Slavery at Monticello and Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello, studies that required her, she says, to go “deeper and deeper down” into the unquiet past. While intellectually exhilarating, the effort hasn’t been without its psychic cost. Even so, she maintains, such work is necessary. “One of the descendants told us, ‘My grandmother talked about the beauty of Monticello and the ugliness of slavery.’ The good and the bad. Americans, or maybe everybody, find that difficult to accept,” Stanton says. “But you can’t have one without the other.”

Diving Deeper

The scope of the Jamestown 2007 celebration

Robert Llewellyn

The Godspeed has set sail, having embarked in May on an 80-day voyage to six Eastern Seaboard ports of call. With the launching of this replica of one of the vessels that bore English voyagers to their first American home, Jamestown 2007 kicked off an 18-month extravaganza that includes a National Teach-In to be broadcast to every American school, an international forum on the future of democracy, and armies of re-enactors replaying the Colonial victory at Yorktown. The tone is one of bursting-at-the-seams self-congratulation, but Jeffrey Hantman isn’t applauding or, rather, his is the sound of one hand clapping. “The archeology that’s been done at James Fort is extraordinary,” says the UVA anthropology professor, an authority on the Piedmont’s Monacan Indians, “but we may be missing an opportunity for a more balanced, nuanced commemoration.”

We review the past through the lens of the present, Hantman says, and just as the 300th anniversary in 1907 brandished a Southern defensiveness about Plymouth Rock’s greater name recognition, so does Jamestown 2007, initiated during a Republican governorship, reflect contemporary conservative politics. The fete reviews the African-American imprint on the Americas and presents an American Indian Intertribal Cultural Festival and “400 Years of Survival—a Virginia Indian Symposium,” but Hantman worries that Native American voices will be drowned out, figuratively, by the fife-and-drum corps.

The problem, he maintains, is one of perspective. “In 1607,” Hantman says, “there were 140 Englishmen, but 14,000 Powhatans and another 15,000 Monacans to the west. They were engaged in complex politics. Their culture and civilization were equally complex. Without them, Jamestown wouldn’t have survived. They could have destroyed the colony and they didn’t. Yet that’s not the way the power relationship tends to be depicted.”

The Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, a confederacy of six tribes, hopes to use Jamestown 2007 as a forum to further its bid for federal government recognition, an official stamp that’s been accorded to 562 Native American tribes, but not to the Commonwealth’s.

Hantman had hoped that the commemoration would be “deeper in time and broader in scope.” He elaborates: “There are all kinds of questions we could address. What were the Powhatan and Monacan relations with each other before the English arrival? How did those affect their response to the English? Also, how did the English establishment of Jamestown relate to their competition with Spain, Holland and France? People get engaged when they’re brought in on historical questions rather than told historical ‘facts.’ Without a genuine discussion, we’re missing what’s really unique about Jamestown.”