Friday, November 20, 2009

The Presentation of History

We continue to evolve in the way we teach history. Colonial Williamsburg is, as usual, in the pioneering the way. Read the article and consider whether the trade-offs involved in non-traditional approaches to presenting history are worth the benefit. Write a brief (two or three paragraphs) response in the comments section. Please make sure you do this; some folks got hurt last six weeks for not doing the participation posts.

(Article reprinted from the Washington Post for educational purposes.)

Brewing new sense of Colonial relevance
Coffeehouse project is steeped in Williamsburg's shift to modern storytelling

By Philip Kennicott
Thursday, November 19, 2009

WILLIAMSBURG -- It's been more than 50 years since Colonial Williamsburg reconstructed a major 18th-century building on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt once called "the most historic avenue in America." Duke of Gloucester Street, flanked on one end by the late 17th-century "Wren building" of the College of William and Mary, and on the other by the reconstructed Virginia Capitol building, is the spine and soul of Colonial Williamsburg, a historic attraction that is part fantasy, part relic and, for hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, the defining vision of what Revolutionary-era America looked like.

Now it is home to the modest Charlton's Coffeehouse, built from scratch on historic foundations and billed as the only 18th-century coffeehouse in America. It opens to the public Friday.

The $5 million project debuts decades after the Colonial Revival era of the first reconstructions at Williamsburg, when museum professionals and the public were less fastidious about the authenticity of reconstructions. And it benefits from the methodical archaeology and forensics that make reconstructions today more reliable than the mix of research and whimsy used during the first era of rebuilding Williamsburg in the 1920s and '30s.

But the real importance of this unprepossessing little structure isn't so much what it adds to the atmosphere of Duke of Gloucester Street as what it says about how history is presented in the age of iPhones and Bowling Alone.

Since 1994, Williamsburg has been rethinking its basic presentation of history, moving more toward narrative and theater to capture the attention of younger audiences turned off by older teaching methods. The impact of that approach can occasionally be seen in the physical space at Williamsburg, a collection of hundreds of original and reconstructed buildings, including a courthouse that was renovated in part to serve as the site of an interactive drama that engages audiences in historical debate about laws and rights.

But Charlton's Coffeehouse is the first building to be reconstructed specifically to serve the agenda of a large-scale theater piece, "Revolutionary City," which debuted in 2006 as part of Colonial Williamsburg's long-term plan to regain relevance, recapture audiences and reinvent the telling of history in a more distracted, disengaged and uneducated era.

The thought of rebuilding Charlton's Coffeehouse goes back at least a decade. The historical record was clear: Where a large Victorian home known as the Cary Peyton Armistead House was then standing, there was once a bustling coffeehouse that played an important role during the years leading up to the American Revolution. That structure began life as a storeroom, but at some point in the 1760s a young immigrant named Richard Charlton used the building -- adjacent to the Colonial Capitol -- as a coffeehouse, serving a brew that likely would have tasted burned and bitter to the contemporary palate.

The property eventually fell into the hands of the Armistead family, who used much of the original foundation to build themselves a stylish new Victorian home -- which looked utterly out of place by the time John D. Rockefeller Jr. was funding the re-creation of Colonial-era Duke of Gloucester Street during the Great Depression. So in 1994, the Williamsburg curators moved the home, and in 1995 they began a fine-tooth archaeological comb of the site. From the evidence gathered, including materials reused from the original coffee shop in the Armistead structure, and a sole photograph showing the structure from sometime in the 1880s, they felt confident that they could resurrect the building.

"There's a lot of potential there for programming," says Jim Horn, vice president for research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg. On Friday there will be a sneak peek at the latest addition to the "Revolutionary City" script, a scene depicting a famous 1765 protest against the Stamp Act that happened on the steps of the coffeehouse.

"We can re-create an important event right where it took place," Horn says.

Dwindling civic life

It is fitting, perhaps, that a building that once served as a site of Colonial-era discussion and debate is the first major reconstruction of the narrative-driven era of Williamsburg. The roots of Charlton's Coffeehouse go back to the 18th century, but the roots of the reconstruction reflect deep concerns about growing social anomie over the past few decades. In museum circles, the shorthand for this is "Bowling Alone," a reference to Robert Putnam's 1995 book, which claimed that Americans were becoming increasingly disengaged from civic participation and social engagement.

Horn rattles off a litany of worries that everyone in the history business is facing: "The decline of civic awareness and school education; the decline of quality newspapers; voting every four years, or not at all . . . ." Schoolchildren, he says, are arriving at Williamsburg with very little knowledge of the basics of American history. And in the age of endless electronic blandishments, from online gaming to iPhones that can immerse you in enhanced realities, reengaging kids without a narrative and emotional component is seen as impossible.

Narrative also allows for what curators feel is a more open and subtle approach to complicated issues.

"It began to come up in the early 1980s as we began dealing with slavery," says Ron Hurst, vice president for collections, conservation and museums. Storytelling and engagement with visitors made for a more supple and inclusive form of teaching, a way to finesse the awkward fact that while Colonial Williamsburg was diverse, it was by no means inclusive by 21st-century standards.

But "Revolutionary City" isn't for everyone. The piece strives for interaction and emotional appeal, which can leave some visitors standing awkwardly on the sidelines.

"The involvement is up to you," says Horn, who adds that Williamsburg tries to appeal to multiple audiences who have various expectations of a historical park.

History, amplified

Theater-driven history also has its dangers, and ironies. The actors available to Williamsburg aren't necessarily performing at the level that many visitors are used to from film, television and genuine theater. This isn't Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger doing "The Patriot." A kind of enforced intensity prevails through much of the show as actors strive to make 18th-century language comprehensible in an outdoor setting. Electric speakers hidden in the trees help.

But just as you wonder whether hanging speakers in trees is yet another concession to theater on behalf of 18th-century ambiance, you're reminded that the trees themselves are part of the Colonial Revival-era fantasy.

"No trees, no sidewalks and more buildings," says Hurst, summing up the main differences between the way the town actually looked and the way the designers of the Rockefeller era envisioned it.

Theater is also self-exhausting, meaning it must be refreshed with new scenes to keep people coming back. And there is always the danger of balancing audience enthusiasm and entertainment with teaching and complexity.

"It's important that we don't portray this as some sort of patriotic drum-beating pageant," says Horn, who adds that they have recently included a scene involving Native Americans.

But theater might not be enough to deal with the larger issues facing institutions such as Williamsburg, where attendance peaked at about 1 million in the 1980s, and despite a spike in the first years after the introduction of "Revolutionary City," has remained level at about 700,000 a year. Live human beings interacting with each other may ultimately seem as archaic as tour guides running through the practiced patter of a history lecture. And so, new media and games are also being considered. Carefully.

"Many people actually want to escape technology," Hurst says. But Williamsburg is also looking into providing customized information via iPhone and other handheld devices, and it is working with game designers on a project called Rev Quest, a game directed at children that will involve finding clues as they move about the historic district.

"It's about linking experiences," Horn says. "Some of the clues might be online. We think that is going to be quite appealing."


  1. Kids at school have been having a difficult time with the American History and the sequence of events govering their study. I created some concise flashcards,which I hope will make things easier for them. What is your opinion on this method?( and also on these flashcards)

  2. If the benefit of Williamsburg's Revolutionary City is increased revenue, attention to history, and traffic, then it should by all means keep up it's methods. I understand that the new methods are different and some may revert to declension, but I also think a majority would be interested. I think creating a dynamic Williamsburg experience is an excellent idea.
    We are moving into the age of iPhones. Since that is the way it is, why shouldn't the way history is being taught be changed also? As the author stated, more and more attention is concentrated on technology. People do
    their homework and research projects online. People even take classes online. Because this is the case, and students as well as adults seem to be
    more likely to listen or see than read, shouldn't the way history is taught change, too?

  3. I like theater and debate and other public speaking. I would be interested in going to see these new methods, but I would much rather read a book then go online and find out information. I would be fascinated to just listen and absorb what someone is saying. I wouldn't want a game or app to tell me what a person can.
    For most people though who use technology a whole lot more the I do and would prefer it to human interaction, I think the new innovative approach is worth a try. Williamsburg wants to increase tourism, so it must do something if the older method isn't drawing in the crowds it used to.

  4. People these days are to worried about their phones, computers, ipods, and even homework to realize how interesting the history of your town is, or how certain things we have now came to be. People tend to get bored if you just sit there and simply tell them the facts with out appealing to the entertainment aspect, or just lecturing them.
    I think what Williamsburg is doing is a great idea. It allows people to learn about history and having fun while doing it. By showing people a different side, it also allows them to view things from the other sides as well. People get excited for the new things to come, and whether they come for the history aspect or not, they are bound to learn/remember something.

  5. When I first read this I thought it was a pretty cool idea to find new ways to get people interested. But after thinking about it, I don't think that this particular method is going to work. Like the article said, it is going to be extremely hard to successfully entertain crowds while teaching them.
    I think the biggest concern with this is where Williamsburgs priorities are. It almost seems as though they are more worried about entertaining people than teaching people about history. Entertainment is cool, but I think they are going over the top here. The trade off, in my opinion, is not worth it.

  6. I appreciate that Williamsburg is working to find new ways to depict history. Theoretically, this is a great way to teach people about colonial life while entertaining them at the same time. Of course, it will depend on how much the audience is willing to participate and get involved. The project itself has potential, but it will be up to visitors to decide if it's effective and fun.
    On the flip side, Williamsburg does need to be careful about relying too heavily on theater as a tool. The author made some excellent points on the "dangers and ironies" of theater. As long as the people in charge of this project take these suggestions into consideration, this could really pique some interest.

  7. Over the summer, I was forced to go to Colonial Williamsburg, and I was honestly bored for the majority of the time (excluding time spent eating the amazing gingerbread cookies or screwing up random peoples‘ picture taking). The only person in my family that enjoyed the day was my father, and I think that was because he went their with his family when he was a kid. I made up my mind to never go their voluntarily. My experience reflects the fact that the longer it takes Williamsburg to get the balance between learning and entertainment right, the shorter it will survive.
    Williamsburg should focus on entertainment over education. If people honestly just wanted to learn about the city of Williamsburg in the 1700's, they would get on the internet or walk to a local library and save a lot of money. The presentation should reflect this imbalance between demand for entertainment and demand for education. I was less bored when the actors mixed into the crowd and booed “Benedict Arnold” as he rode into the city and gave a speech. I might have been even less bored had their been some sort of internet scavenger hunt going on. The adding of interesting activities into the boring walk from house to house under a scorching sun is a step in the right direction. The leadership isn’t paid by dead colonial patriots that want their story told; they’re paid by the public. And the public won’t sacrifice entertainment for the sake of learning. Perhaps the site could do more good for history education if it laid the foundation for outside research by creating an environment that attracted, instead of repulsed, the visitors to Colonial Williamsburg’s beginnings. If “The Revolutionary City” cannot meet the demands of the public, it will eventually be shut down, and that will certainly not help anyone learn about history.

  8. I think that Williamsburg should really consider adding technological twists to their more traditional methods of presenting history. I have been to Williamsburg several times, and my history fanatic of a dad is always dissappointed when i show a lack of interest in the history of the town. I think that if there was a more interactive way of being taught history, it would appeal to the younger generations.

  9. I think that what Williamsburg is trying to do is create entertainment for the masses while throwing in a little education on the side. When I went to Williamsburg a couple of years ago, they were already trying to use the theatre and public interaction ways of teaching people about Williamsburg and the Revolutionary Era. I can say that I definetely enjoyed the interactive and storytelling parts of the tour better because they were more interesting and seemed more real. I think that if Williamsburg moves even more in the direction of theatre and interactive learning, they will have a larger audience that is more willing to participate. I'm not sure how the internet games and stuff would work though, I feel like that would be a hit or miss kind of thing. Basically, I think that the measures Williamsburg is trying to make will give more people a memorable and educational experience but the underlying push is to get more people to go to williamsburg in the first place so that this historical community doesn't go out of business.

  10. The answer to whether the trade-offs are worth the adoption of non-traditional approaches to presenting history is answered in the article. "Reengaging kids without a narrative and emotional component is seen as impossible." Without those components Williamsburg is just giving kids more of what they experience in school, memorization of facts with no representation of how they can be applied. By using theater, kids will be engaged and excited about one of America's greatest historical towns.
    Williamsburg just has to keep in mind that it should not become one giant theater presentation.

  11. Pumpkin Head said...

    While I think that using theater and electronics to reengage kids into history will help, kids still have to want to learn about history. Why would kids go to see an IMAX on the history of Williamsburg if they could go see Batman. It all comes down to making it interesting. Picture slides with transitions and a narrator isn't going to do it. They have to go all out with animation or full plays.

  12. Pumpkin Head said...
    They need to make sure that they have qualified actors. They cant have just any average joe. They need to incorperate humor and action. It needs to be interesting and it needs to be fun. It must be unique.

  13. I, being a person who has visited colonial Williamsburg many times, am very excited to hear about these new methods of recreating history. It seems like everytime I visit, the experiance never changes. With the addition of an historically correct coffehouse and these new theatrical methods of telling Wiliamsburg's story, the wow factor should be bumped up quite a lot.
    The only thing that I would worry about is the quality and strenght of the actors. When I last visited Williamsburg, my dad was selected to be on a mock jury and be apart of a recreated court case. Although it was fun to watch him squirm in the juror's box, the acting of the judge and the prosecutors was lacking and it detracted from the History of the moment. If they want to include dramatic interpretations of the past, they need to make sure that the actors are well trained, can make old english understandable and they can interact with the audience in a positive manor.

  14. I think that these new ideas for Colonial Williamsburg are an overall good. The theatrical way of demonstrating history seems like it would be entertaining and involving. It would keep the attention of most audiences, although there is always that kid who falls asleep. As long as the actors aren't simply random people who are walking down the streets and have at least a few years of theatrical experience, the level of entertainment should be substantial.
    As for involving technology, I think that would root out those kids who fall asleep during the theatrical part. People are all starting to use technology for every little thing they do. For example, we have blog assignments that count as HOMEWORK GRADES! Getting a program with electronics as well as the theatrical reproductions would be a great benefit for Williamsburg's popularity.

  15. Using theater is a great idea. It provides a good balance among entertainment, educational value, and historical preservation. It keeps people engaged, shows them how people dressed and talked (to an extent), and truly immerses the viewer into the setting (accurate setting and characters). A lot can be learned from this sort of immersion. We just have to cut the grandiosity as much as possible. As for the renewal argument: what makes theater different from lectures in this regard? Wouldn't lectures stay the same until parts of the historical record are uncovered or altered? Theater can adjust to those changes, too. Moreover, there are people who see theater productions multiple times if they think that the production is enjoyable. There are people who have seen "Cats" and "Wicked" literally over twenty times. If they really enjoy the theatrical productions at Williamsburg, they'll probably come back.
    Technology might spark interest, but it might tamper with photo-realism. I also wonder how something like a scavenger hunt would educate kids. Nonetheless, this is the 21st century. Pretty soon everybody's going to move toward technology. Williamsburg shouldn't leave itself in the dust.
    Our attention spans are getting ever smaller. People are hungry for different ways to present things besides droning lectures (look at colleges--they're become more and more wired all the time). If Williamsburg continues to go down that path, it will make itself seem insignificant. And it's place the American people should never forget.

  16. I think they are worth it. The whole point of colonial Williamsburg is to interest people in American history and heritage, so the focuse should be on how to do that.
    The adaptations they are making are creative. Theatre and audience involvement is always a good way to get people interested. Technology is a good way to go I think, especially for the younger generation.

  17. I have traaveled many places with my family and on almost every trip we do an activity that relates to history. This summer our entire vacation was based on history and we traveled to Gettysburg and then to Boston. Surprisingly, it was actually quite interesting. One of my favorite things we did was the Freedom Trail. It was a two mile walk that visited all the historical sites in Boston. The whole time you folled the red trail you were guided by an ipod touch.
    I enjoyed the ipod because it allowed you to go at your own pace instead of listen to a guide go on and on. I think it was a great way to teach the people about all these sites and a fantastic way to use new technology to teach history. I think that Williamsburg should do something similar.

  18. I have taken several classes online, like AP Psychology and now Honors Chemistry and I think that something is really lost without that human connection. I think things are better communicated when you see for yourself what it is and who is makes it more memorable because you have a tangible person showing you. It's more personal, and that is something important that would be lost in a technological change. That being said, I think material and different subjects can be conveyed in a better way by using new and improved technology, but still in a classroom environment where teachers can be on hand to communicate in person.


Questions? Comments? Bueller? Bueller?