A New Spring in Colonial Williamsburg's Old Step

Visitors can now march in a Virginia regiment, and quiz Jefferson on slavery

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Much of this self-discovery will happen as part of the historic-date reenactment, which will take place on a rotating daily basis, with three of the four dates being repeated the remaining days of each week. Elliot hopes events will provide insights on the Revolution, Colonial life, slavery, and religion.

On the earliest date - February 26, 1774 - the royal governor's wife, Lady Dunsmore, arrives. Because most colonists are still loyal to England, she is given an enthusiastic welcome.

But by the time of the two dates in 1775, the tide has turned against George III and Parliament. Events interpreting the final day in May 1776 should be exciting, since it could be considered the start of the Revolution. Next year, some or all of the dates will change.

"It's like a stage production, but it's happening all over town," says Pam Pettengell, one of Williamsburg's three historic area directors. Christy Matthews, another historic-area director, says topics such as religious practices and the role that slaves played will also be included.

Meanwhile, Ms. Matthews says visitors can question important patriots in person as to why liberty is not also to be experienced by Africans. Visitors can hear the Thomas Jefferson interpreter address this and other issues in Jefferson's own words.

Williamsburg may attract even more attention next year. It's the 300th anniversary of its inauguration as the Colonial capital. And Colonial Williamsburg is joining with the College of William and Mary, and the town of Williamsburg, to make sure the rest of the country hears about it.

Wander Through the Gardens or Hear a Parlor Discussion

On a cool winter morning, I visited an old and dear friend - Bruton Parish Church. This gracious building has been in continuous use since 1715.

Bruton Parish is one of the few buildings on Duke of Gloucester Street that's not owned and run by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It's staffed by its Episcopalian congregation so you don't need a ticket.

After leaving the church, I made my way to the impressive brick home of George Wythe, whose name appears first among the Virginia signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was not at home that day, but holding forth in a parlor room was John Randolph, a loyalist who politely but vigorously argued with me on the issue of independence.

My next stop was at the Governor's Palace, impressive as much for the faithfulness with which it was re-created as for its imposing rooms. It's wonderful to wander around in back among the gardens, and to get lost in the boxwood maze.

A dedicated visitor could spend a week or more seeing Williamsburg. Along with the many sites along Duke of Gloucester Street, the Palace Green, and adjoining streets, one can visit two world-class museums. The DeWitt Wallace Gallery, completed in 1985, presents absorbing displays of English and American decorative arts. The furniture display was my favorite - accompanied by video programs that show, rather than tell, how such furniture was created. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, enlarged less than 10 years ago, provides a generous display of colorful, and often quirky, works by untrained artists.

If you visit:

The first building many people see at Colonial Williamsburg is the visitors center. The staff is very helpful there, and you can park in the lot and take a bus to the village. You also can see an orientation film. Museum tickets range from $25 to $33 for adults, and $15 to $19 for children. People who don't like crowds, and are willing to sacrifice some interpretive programs for a more leisurely look around, may want to visit between early January and mid-March.

* For further information call, 1-800-HISTORY (1-800 (447)-8679), or access their Web page at: http://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/travel

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