- The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg
Tying the arrival of the new social history to the depositing of horse manure in the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, Richard Handler and Eric Gable introduce the first of many intriguing ideas in this study of America’s venerable history museum. At its most basic, this thought-provoking book analyzes the problems of incorporating newer approaches to history into older museums, but raises broader questions about the cultural politics of museums. During the course of two years—1990 and 1991—the authors conducted extensive field research and burrowed into the institutional archives to study Colonial Williamsburg not as an abstract place, but as a working institution with an established context for the history it produced. Handler and Gable examined how Colonial Williamsburg created its historical messages, how they were practiced, and how they were received. This research agenda put the authors in contact with a broad spectrum of museum personnel, as well as with the public.
One of the dominant findings of this study is that the impact of the new social history “has hardly had the kind of insurgent effect its critics claim for it.” (p. 8) The entry of social historians into Colonial Williamsburg had been heralded as an opportunity to democratize the story of this eighteenth century colonial capital. What went wrong? The ramifications of this failure are considerable for history museums and have implications for the place of social history within public history. How and why did the aggressive agenda established by social historians in the 1970s to tell the other side of the story fail? Handler and Gable provide great detail in answering these questions and supporting their argument. Rather than simply laying the blame at the feet of the hegemonic forces and elitist mentalities that guided the museum from its inception, the authors argue for a more complex rationale for why social history did not radically change the messages told at Colonial Williamsburg. “We think that more powerful than ‘interests’ have been the unexamined assumptions and entrenched cultural patterns that govern history making at Colonial Williamsburg—assumptions and patterns the revisionists either overlooked or underestimated when they designed their program.” (p. 221) This statement goes to the heart of how history museums do what they do.
Colonial Williamsburg epitomizes the entrenched mentality and organizational structure that pervades many of America’s well-established history museums. Of course, some aspects are unique to Colonial Williamsburg, but many of the issues the authors address are applicable to institutions of all ages and sizes—they are endemic to history museums. These include tensions between portraying celebratory or patriotic history and the story of marginalized groups, a story that often portrays conflict, not assimilation. Despite the best efforts of historians and curators, those that interact with the public “on the front lines” are often reluctant to embrace this side of America’s past. Prominent at Colonial Williamsburg, but not isolated to it, is the need to operate as a fiscally responsible business, but remain true to the educational mission. Making choices that advance the bottom line without compromising an institution’s [End Page 196] responsibility to collect, preserve, and teach is an on-going struggle, and compromises never satisfy fully either side. These tensions create contentious dynamics among museum personnel, and they are inherent in the very structure of museums. The questions raised and problems identified by Handler and Gable are worthwhile points of discussions for the museum community at large. The New History in an Old Museum is useful for history museum professionals, those involved in other areas of public history, and historians interested in how history is portrayed for and accepted by general audiences. Additionally, this makes a fine textbook for students pursuing careers in history outside the academy.
My appreciation for the comprehensive work done by Handler, an anthropologist and Gable, a sociologist and anthropologist does not mitigate one of the glaring limitations of...