Curator of Historic Interiors

Curator Emily Roberts enjoys setting a proper Christmas supper for 10 in the Palace.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on  This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Emily Roberts who is the assistant curator of historic interiors at Colonial Williamsburg, and I suppose the first question is, “What are historic interiors and how do you curate them?”

Emily Roberts:  Basically, I take all of the objects that each of the specialist curators work with and put them into all of the buildings in the Historic Area in an accurate manner using inventories and diaries and all kinds of other things to take objects that we have and put them into the buildings.

Lloyd:  How often?

Emily: All of the buildings are furnished, and there are only certain things that change on a regular basis. We do seasonal changes in the fall and the spring, and we also do changes where we go through a building and reevaluate the interior, reevaluate what we have in the building, as well as just thinking about the spaces and doing more research or doing deeper research about a specific subject.

Lloyd: Okay, there are no pictures in the 18th century, written descriptions tend to me to be not quite as much detail as I would want. How do you do it?

Emily:  Well, you can take…there’s a lot of information that you can take and use in buildings. For example, there may not be photographs, but sometimes there are drawings; sometimes there are paintings that may illustrate a specific item or specific space, let’s say kitchens, for example, and how kitchens are laid out. You can look at groupings of paintings and see similarities. For example, we frequently find shelves with large pewter dishes lined up. If you see that over and over again in a series of paintings, you can use those to furnish a kitchen and pick out the things that might be used for a specific kitchen.

Also, taking inventories are, I’d say, one of our best resources. Unfortunately, here at Colonial Williamsburg we only have inventories for half the town because of the burn record situation. But inventories are divided into three different categories. One would be a room-by-room inventory where it’s listed, you know the bullhead room, it lists all of the objects in the bullhead room, and then it lists another chamber and all the objects in that…and when you see that, if you’ve got the original building you can go in and pick which room is which and furnish it to that listing based on the prices listed for each of the objects, based on the layout of the inventory.

The second type of inventory is one that’s room-by-room, but they don’t separate out the rooms; it’s just one big long list, but you can see they move from one room where they’ve got four tables and then 10 lines later there are another two tables, you know they    have moved from one room to another. You can take those listings and sort them out into different rooms, and that helps a lot. And, by looking at an inventory, the values of certain objects, say, chairs, you can figure out hierarchy of rooms – well this must have been the nicest room, because it has the most expensive chairs in it; this was probably one of the lesser rooms or one of the private spaces, because the chairs are a little less expensive, and you can use…

Lloyd:  So, money counts, even in the 18th…?

Emily: Money counts, yes, even though today we can’t convert that money into modern amounts, you can just do all of the math, and figure it out…    

Lloyd: Yeah, but if this one is 100 pounds, and that one is 10 pounds, 100 pounds is more money than 10, no matter what it converts to…

Emily:   Exactly. Right. And one of the beauties of my job is we have curators for all of the specialties, so I can go to the curator of furniture and say, okay, I need a 10-pound table or a 100-pound table, and she is going to tell me well this is what it might look like, or this is what the other one will look like and here’s the hierarchy that makes it this amount versus the smaller amount.

Lloyd:  I’ve been talking to some people about food. How do you set up a dinner table?

Emily:  Okay.  We do table changes twice a year, and the first thing I do when I look at changing the tables in the Historic Area is to pull out original table layouts – those are in cookbooks, they are in diaries, things like that…they were published in the 18th century, and I try to find one that is similar to what I want to set up. Let’s say a dinner for six, first course of dinner for six. Then, I think about the house that I am putting that food into, so the Wythe House, the Randolph House, the Palace – those are the spaces that we usually do table changes in. They are all very high-end houses; obviously the Palace is higher end than the rest.

Lloyd:  (Laughs)

Emily:   I then go to my faux food cupboard in the back of this building and see what we have that fits that table setting. Frequently we don’t have the exact item, because we are kind of low on faux food, but what we do have is…the layout may have a bird of some sort; we have birds back there; we can go pull certain things…

Lloyd:  I am terribly afraid…

Emily:   (Laughs)

Lloyd: …that when you said “faux food” somebody is going to hear “tofu.”
Emily:   (Laughs) 

Lloyd:   You mean…

Emily:   F-a-u-x

Lloyd:  Thank you.

Emily:   Food that has been made to look like the real thing but it’s a conservation-sound material, so that I can put it on a nice silver platter at the palace, and when I take it out in six months there isn’t going to be a stain where that object was. One of our conservators makes our faux food right now. We have a large stash that has been made over the years, but some of it she is constantly making new things to replace other objects or to fulfill those original table settings. My goal is to be able to set up tables in the coming years with exact objects from those table settings, so I can hand out to the staff “here’s the original plate” that [is shown on] this table layout, and this is what you’ve got on the table.

Lloyd:  I don’t mean this in any way derogatorily, but it sounds like you spend most of your time in research trying to figure out what was…

Emily:   A lot of my time is research. For everything we put out in the Historic Area, there has got to be research behind it. And, a lot of the research has been done, but it can always be revived, and it can always be refreshed. You’d be amazed at the new things you find out just by going back and re-reading it with fresh eyes. A couple of years ago, before my time here, but a group re-did the Randolph house, and in reading through the original inventory they were able to find other things that when it was transcribed the first time they had missed. It’s amazing what you can find just by going back and re-reading things.

Lloyd:  You know there’s a lot of new history out about the Revolutionary War where obviously people have done exactly the same thing – they’ve just gone back and read it again.

Emily:  And stuff comes out of the woodwork.  Over the years more things come to an institution, and just by having that one extra piece, it might re-do the entire picture.

Lloyd:  Where do you find those pieces?

Emily: Right now, most of my research comes from libraries, but the libraries are constantly finding new things. In terms of foodways and doing table settings, where I find most of my information is from rare books that we have in our library. There are two cookbooks – one was published in England, and that same exact book was re-published here in Williamsburg, and the two are not the same. They are not identical. There were things that were removed when it was published here in Williamsburg. And to read those two things and compare what is in the English printing and what is in the Williamsburg printing, you start thinking, okay, so why did they take all that stuff out?  Was it simply for economy, or were there other reasons?

Lloyd: Yeah, that’s curious.

Emily:  It’s interesting.

Lloyd:  The immediate thought would be they didn’t put it in because it wasn’t available here.

Emily:  Right, that is the first thought, but a lot of the things are things like pigeons – we have tons of pigeons here in the 18th century, (laughs) so then the question – did they remove it because it was such a well-known recipe that you didn’t need to republish it? But you start thinking about those things…mushrooms are another thing that are curiously removed in certain situations. We know there were mushrooms here…

Lloyd:  Plenty of mushrooms…still now…

Emily:  Yes, plenty of mushrooms.

Lloyd:  So you ever just throw your hands up and say “I don’t know and that’s just the way it is…” 

Emily:  Well, you can always say in a better way, “This is still under research, or new facts may come to light, but for right now we don’t know.”  But it’s always fun just to keep thinking about it. And, once again, those pieces of the puzzle may come in in 20 years and you might think, “Oh that’s why they took it out,” or that kind of thing. It’s really interesting. 

Lloyd:  How about things – plates, tureens? Do they change from London to Williamsburg?

Emily:  Here in the colonies, we imported things from England and from all over the world, and so generally they’re the same, but there are certain things that we didn’t have available to us that they may have, but for the most part, we could get anything we wanted if we had enough money. And, in setting up table settings, that’s one of the big…major portion of a table setting is all of the objects on the table that you put the faux food onto. And, I know our curators of ceramics would be upset if I didn’t mention that we have some great ceramic objects that make it possible for us to do some really tremendous table settings. The biggest Christmas table setting we do is at the Palace, and we do a full supper room, a ball supper.

Lloyd:  Why did I know that?

Emily:   Yes, well, it’s a great space to work with, so once a year we set up a table for 10 in the supper room. We usually do a dessert or a supper, which is the meal that was served around at 8:00 o’clock at night.  And, we are able to put out glass pyramids with sweet meats and other dessert items, as well as use a really great set of Liverpool bird pattern dishes.

Lloyd:  You sound like you have fun doing that.

Emily:   I do, it’s a lot of fun, but unfortunately we have to set it up at about 5:30 at night, and it usually takes until about 9:00 at night because the building is open all year round, so it gets interesting.

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *