Thursday, December 20, 2012

Revisiting Old Friends: Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon

Museums are great, and so are museum shops. My earliest museum shop purchases included a mob cap and facsimile colonial money from George Washington's Mount Vernon and a toy fife (or was it a tin whistle?) from Colonial Williamsburg. (I lost the latter on the way home, much to my parents' relief.) As you can imagine, I read a ton of books as a child, but it wasn't until I reached my college years that I began lugging exhibition catalogues home (as the friends who helped us move last year know) in place of historical props. I have a difficult time justifying buying historically-inspired "toys" as a twenty-something, but trust me, these treats are hard to resist. Who wouldn't want to bring history home with them in the form of an object through which one can recall, reenact, and understand the past?

I spent the last seven months or so studying for, taking, and (hooray!) passing my comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. in history. Good historians' writing "transports" you to another place and time, as many of the books I read over the past few months did. I could not be a good historian---public, academic, or both---without mastering historiography (a fancy word for the history of history). Yet we all know that books leave out the sights, smells, and sounds of history.

Certainly no historic site no matter how complete can truly transport you back in time. But the jaunt Tyler and I took to George Washington's Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg this past weekend reminded me of "living" history's power. I had been to these two sites several times over the past few years, and I learned a lot from each of those visits. But there was something about this particular visit---perhaps the fact that I was there for "fun"---that reminded me why little Nicole wanted to bring home early America in the form of reproduction clothing accessories and money; I wanted to (and still want to) remember, reenact and "experience" history at home after leaving behind the colonial gentlemen astride their horses and the colonial tailors peddling their fine finished goods. These interpreters brought history to life and dissolved temporarily the grim realities of contemporary living. Between talking of taxes without representation, mixing a "cure" for the gout, and gazing upon the bed in which George Washington---"The General"---died 213 years ago to. the. day., I, along with a lot of people I overheard this weekend, said "I wish history was like this in school."

And so I recommitted myself to being an effective interpreter of history whether I am lecturing in the classroom, writing an article, giving a tour of a former president's (or working person's) home, crafting an exhibition, or riding down a "colonial" street astride a horse while bedecked in period costume.

You're never too old for what the Progressives might have called "a fairyland."
Nicole Belolan, Agamemnon the horse, and Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Mark Schneider
Further Reading

For more on the concept of "fairyland," see Beverly Gordon, The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women's Lives, 1890-1940, esp. pages. 40-41.

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