A New Spring in Colonial Williamsburg's Old Step
Visitors can now march in a Virginia regiment, and quiz Jefferson on slavery
The words "Colonial Williamsburg" can provoke vivid memories: streets lined with lovingly restored 18th-century homes and shops; graceful gardens and flowering trees; and boredom.Skip to next paragraph
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My visits to Williamsburg stretch back to childhood. Despite returning several times since then, I've never felt fully engaged by this landmark museum until this year. The place has changed, and beginning Saturday, it's going to change even more.
This doesn't mean that Patrick Henry's life has been given an "Entertainment Tonight" treatment, or that Williamsburg's centerpiece - the almost mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street - is adding computer-enhanced carriage rides.
Instead, innovative programs are helping history seize the imagination of visitors. After March 21, for instance, visitors will step back each day into one of four pre-Revolutionary dates.
On a given day, the entire town might be reliving May 15, 1776, when the Colony of Virginia declared independence from Great Britain. All interpreters (reenacted people from the past) would be taking part in that day's watershed events.
The climax would occur at the Capitol building, where delegates would vote for independence and call on the Continental Congress to do likewise.
For Williamsburg, this type of change means survival. In the early 1990s, visitation was dropping fast. By 1993, ticket sales were off by almost 25 percent from the 1.2 million sold in the peak year of 1988. For an institution that depends on ticket sales for a large portion of its budget, it was small consolation that many other history museums around the country were facing similar problems. Visitors were no longer content simply to see historically recreated buildings and people in period costume. So Williamsburg and some other museums started looking for solutions.
In 1996, Williamsburg curators began to create year-long themes - topics explored during the events of the day. This year's topic is 18th-century religion. In addition, daily events were beefed up, with greater opportunity for visitors to take part.
Visitors might, for example, find themselves marching with a Virginia regiment, or playing the role of a litigant in a Colonial court trial. Kids might be pressed into service making bricks. Today, visitation is back up to almost the 1 million mark.
The past recreated
Had not W.A.R. Goodwin taken an interest in restoring Colonial Williamsburg, the picture might have been different.
Williamsburg was first settled in 1633. But the years from 1699 to 1780 were its period of glory, when it was the capital of Virginia. During this time - and especially during the 1770s - some of the most important political events in the founding of the United States happened here.
But when the capital was moved to Richmond, considered a safer location, the town lost not only status but vigor.
Dr. Goodwin came to Williamsburg in 1903, accepting the rectorship of the Bruton Parish, and later headed the biblical and religious education department at the College of William and Mary.
He soon began the personal crusade that gave the country its largest living-history museum, made possible when, in 1926, John D. Rockefeller Jr. agreed to financially support Goodwin's efforts.
The task was monumental. A total of 88 buildings were restored to Colonial condition and hundreds were rebuilt, including the handsome Governor's Palace and the stately Capitol building.
'Connecting' with visitors
In recent years the historical focus has shifted. "We're still interested in the great men, but also the great women, and all the people who supported them," says Steve Elliot, Williamsburg's vice president for education.
He's concluded that to compete with the Disneys of the world, Williamsburg must lead visitors to "self-discovery." People "want to extract meaning from things that will continue to serve them after they leave," Mr. Elliot says.