Historical research is the core of Colonial Williamsburg’s mission to feed the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story. The focus and motivation for exploring America’s beginnings has changed over nearly a century of interpretation, gradually encompassing a more inclusive narrative of the people who forged a nation. Almost a century of scholarship has helped create an immersive experience, no matter how Colonial Williamsburg feeds your spirit.
History and Research at Colonial Williamsburg
There’s no telling when the moment will come. Perhaps one quiet evening on a cresset-lit street in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, or with the rhythmic, clicking gait of shoed horses as they draw a carriage alongside rows of clapboard façades. It might appear in the exquisite craftsmanship of a departed artisan whose work now resides in the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. When the moment arrives, it’s unmistakable – the instant you leave the 21st century and find yourself immersed in an 18th-century world unsettled by revolution.
What guests to Colonial Williamsburg rarely notice during that transcendent experience is nearly a century of collective scholarship that has culminated in that singular, personal encounter.
Historical research is central to Colonial Williamsburg’s unparalleled interpretation of 18th-century life. Every character and conversation, every persona and program, every interpretation, are products of years of inquiry by historians who have been building on the work of predecessors. Yet all these devoted scholars are not working toward some finite end when all the research will be complete. At Colonial Williamsburg, history is alive and ongoing.
A Complex Past
The notion of historical discovery as a continual process is hard for some people to grasp, according to Cathy Hellier, a Colonial Williamsburg historian of four decades. Many Americans learn in grade school that the past is immutable. The facts that form the backbone of the American story will never change, the thinking goes. In realty, the historians and American public who perpetuate a given narrative have inherent biases. The story that becomes our accepted history is not always fact.
But through source-drive research, our understanding of history can evolve and deepen. Primary sources allow us to look at historical evidence from a different perspective.
History didn’t happen in soundbites. The events that birthed a nation are lengthier and more nuanced than one phrase can capture. They are worthy of discussions that are sometimes difficult to have. Yes, George Washington was The Father of His Country, but he was more than a moniker.
“People see a museum as a neutral arbiter, a community where they have conversations that can’t take place just anywhere,” says Peter Inker, the Theresa A. & Lawrence C. Salameno Director of Historical Research and Digital History. “That allows people to make connections with history.”
A Growing Story
The digital age has opened up a wealth of resources to aid historians in telling richer, more inclusive stories. This is not the first time that society has influenced how historical researchers do their job. During the Cold War, American historians often pursued themes that supported patriotic narratives. The Civil Rights Movement focused more energy on the contributions of minorities and women.
Evolving methods of investigation and new contexts not only help colonial historians flesh out stories that have never been told, but enhance well-known and documented sagas. Through ongoing historical research, new evidence comes to light that adds dimension to established historical fact. New questions arise as clues challenge long-held assumptions.
The Church of England was a cornerstone of colonial American society, for instance. Laws required attendance for white Virginians and religious doctrine swayed policymaking. Only in recent decades have scholars begun to explore the influence that folk beliefs held in religious worship, according to Colonial Williamsburg historian Kelly Arehart. The understandings taken from fresh inquiries have helped write histories that were once neglected, such as the story of the enslaved African American preacher Gowan Pamphlet, whom guests can talk to today as one of Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders.
Williamsburg in the 18th century, like the rest of colonial America, was not simply black and white. There was a broad spectrum of people and ideas. What brings those stories to life is endless inquiry that builds on itself. “Our research makes the guest experience that much more historically authentic,” says Arehart.