A new look at the Governor's Palace

Curator Erik Goldstein researched for three years for the reinstallation and reinterpretation of the arms display at the Governor’s Palace.

Learn more: Governor's Palace


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. 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 Erik Goldstein, and at Colonial Williamsburg he is curator of mechanical arts and numismatics.  Okay that doesn’t go together. Explain mechanical arts and numismatics.

Erik Goldstein:  Mechanical arts means I’m in charge of anything with a mechanism, which covers tools, kitchen equipment, guns, swords, things like clock mechanisms, and numismatics covers coins, metals, and paper money. I just happened to have come to Williamsburg with two specialties, and these are two areas that Colonial Williamsburg has highly developed collections in, so I got responsibility for both of them.  

Lloyd: How did you develop highly skilled terms with mechanical arts and numismatics? It just doesn’t seem like it goes together.  

Erik: I’d say you’re probably right, but in many ways it does go together. It seems to me that people who like old guns tend to like old coins, too, and people who like old coins like old guns.

Lloyd: Okay, so what are you doing at the moment with these old guns and old coins?

Erik: All sorts of things. We are getting ready for a live exhibit of numismatic material which is supposed to open in early 2007, and we’re also working on an online exhibit – a virtual coin museum – which hopefully will go live in late 2006.   

Lloyd: Okay, the mechanical arts part of it?  

Erik: Mechanical arts, we just got through a very exciting reinstallation and reinterpretation of the arms display at the Governor’s Palace. It was the culmination of a three-year project that took me to England to do research, took me to numerous archives doing research and resulted in something I think is pretty spectacular.

Lloyd: Explain that a little bit.

Erik: An arms display is exactly what it sounds like – you take a whole bunch of weapons and you put them on a wall in an ornamental fashion. And we know from as early as 1711 there was an arms display in the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, and it remained in place – with changes throughout its life span – up until right after the Battle of Bunker Hill. In late June of 1775, the patriots basically came and dismantled this arms display because they needed these arms for the defense of the colony.    

Lloyd: (Laughs) That’s very convenient to have a display in the Palace that you could just go get…it would occur to me that somebody having an arms display in the Palace might not want the guns to work..

Erik:  You might think so…you’d have to be a little bit paranoid I think…  

Lloyd: …I am…  

Erik: When you look at arms displays, they have kind of an interesting history. They first appear in English stately homes and royal residences in the late 17th century, and it was a form of ornamentation; it was also a very symbolic installation. It was showing those who entered the space the might that the regent commanded, or the monarch commanded. As early as the 1690s there were arms displays in the colonies. There was one in Fort George in New York and when Governor Alexander Spotswood comes [to Virginia] in 1710, he puts one up, too, in the Governor’s Palace which is currently under construction at the time.    

Lloyd: I remember that. Spotswood got the [construction of] the Palace finally moving. How is this display this time different from – or is it – from the display that went before?   

Erik: The display that was just removed for the installation of the new display was installed in 1981, and at that time period they had different goals in mind. I think they were looking to recreate what the Palace was like during Botetourt’s era. For Botetourt’s era, we have no inventory of the arms display. So we don’t know exactly what was there; we just know that there were arms there. We’ve shifted focus to Lord Dunmore, and we know exactly what was in Lord Dunmore’s Palace. The day that the colony decided they needed to go to the Palace and for the safekeeping of the arms dismantle the arms display, and removed its contents to the Powder Magazine. They took a detailed inventory of exactly what was on the walls at the time. So we knew exactly what should be there in June of 1775, the beginning of the American Revolution, which is a date very important to our new interpretive focus with the Revolutionary City coming up.      

Lloyd: I have a soft spot in my heart for thieves who keep inventories, because they know exactly…
Erik: …it wasn’t a thief!  Dr. Theodoric Bland was certainly not a thief. If you read the correspondence, even though at this point Governor Dunmore was hiding aboard a Man of War in the York River, he still thought he was in control. Obviously, the patriots, the Americans, the Virginians who were running the colony in his absence thought he might still technically be in control, but he’s really not calling the shots. And the correspondence shows that the colony was very concerned about the arms in the Governor’s Palace, mainly because the palace was on the edge of town, and they were worried about whoever breaking into the palace and making off with these arms. So in an official capacity, Dr. Theodoric Bland got together 24 gentlemen of the town. They walked over there in the middle of the day in broad daylight and broke open the palace and removed the arms. They did it very calmly, they did it very carefully, they recorded everything they took; and they also recorded the names of all the men present as witnesses, and they just simply transferred the arms to the Powder Magazine.

Lloyd: Across the street, more or less.

Erik: Yeah, pretty much across the street, and it was such a mundane event that it didn’t even make the newspaper. So they weren’t stealing, they were basically transferring the arms that were vital for the defense of the colony from one warehouse to another warehouse, which they felt was more secure.

Lloyd: How many arms are we talking about?

Erik: A lot. We’re talking 230 muskets, 292 swords, and 18 incomplete pistols.    

Lloyd:  Why incomplete? Do we know?

Erik:  We don’t know for sure. Bland listed these pistols as “without locks.” The only reason you would take the lock out of a pistol is to render it “un-fireable” – which would make sense. During the period, a pistol was a more dangerous weapon than a sword or a firearm because it was small and you could conceal it. So, these would have been the sorts of things that they looked to sort of make useless.

Lloyd: Do you have pistols in the new display?  

Erik:  Mmm-hmm.  

Lloyd:  18?  

Erik:  We have 18 of them, and they don’t have any locks in them.   

Lloyd:  So, it’s exactly as it was on that day.

Erik:  Yes.   

Lloyd:  How about the muskets, rifles, whatever they are called?

Erik:  There are no rifles, there are 230 muskets – the exact number that Bland removed in June of ’75, and out of these 230 muskets, there are 80 originals from the Revolutionary War period.

Lloyd: Oh really?

Erik:  So, in addition to upping the number of muskets that were on display before and matching the proper number for the inventory, we have almost doubled the number of original muskets in the display.

Lloyd: Where in the heck do you find an original Revolutionary War musket?

Erik: We have loads of them here – hundreds!

Lloyd: Really?

Erik: Well, in the late 1940s and early 1950s nobody was buying Revolutionary War period muskets except us. We were trying to furnish the Powder Magazine with as many originals as we could get our hands on, and we bought loads of them in groups of 20, 30 40, 50  at a time, so consequently we have the largest  collection of “Brown Besses” probably anywhere.

Lloyd:  I would never have thought that, but I guess it makes perfectly good sense. If you’re going to be the place to come for the Revolutionary War, you get all the stuff you can that’s original.

Erik: You need the toys to play the game.

Lloyd: That’s it.You said you went to England for this project.

Erik: Yes.

Lloyd: What for?

Erik: Well, we knew plenty about the arms displays, we had plenty of pictures, we had plenty paintings, but we needed to answer a lot of very important little questions – how did a person installing an arms display in 1699 hang a sword on the wall, how did they hang a musket and with what hardware? So I needed to go and look at original surviving arms displays from the period to see how these were constructed.

Lloyd: Okay, I can’t stand it. How did they hang them?

Erik: They hang them in amazingly simple ways. Muskets were suspended on turned wooden pegs, and swords were hung off of wrought iron hooks that were screwed into battens – essentially straight pieces of wood that held the hooks.

Lloyd: Gee, I was hoping for something more exotic.

Erik: They weren’t exotic, and they didn’t really need to be, because in addition to being an arms display, what we had here in Virginia was a back-up arsenal, so they needed to be easily removed, so fancy custom hooks would have made lots of holes in the paneling and at the same time would have made difficult dismantling the thing for use.

Lloyd: That’s what I keep forgetting; it’s not just a display, it’s also a storage facility that you come to get something.

Erik: Exactly, and I think when you go and see what is there now you’ll be impressed, because it looks a lot more complicated and fancy than it really is. When you see these trellis-shaped pilasters of swords going from the chair rail to the bottom of the cornice, you think, “Wow, look at this. Look at the way they intricately wove the blades one over another…” and that’s really an optical illusion. When you start with two diagonal swords at the top in pairs, and you load the rack going from top to bottom, it just forms that shape naturally. There’s really nothing to it. Consequently I installed those panels in less than five minutes. Once the battens with the hooks set into them were mounted to the paneling, that you know, was pre-existing, you could fill them with swords in no time at all, which means you could also take the swords out in no time at all.

Lloyd: …in no time at all. That makes perfectly good sense, but I’ve seen pictures of it where the sword points cross.  It looks like it would take you three “forevers” to make that happen.  

Erik: It takes no time at all.

Lloyd: That’s wonderful. How about with the muskets, is there some trick to that?

Erik: Nope. The muskets, we used a number of different lengths of pegs, all polished hardwood pegs that match the paneling behind, and the muskets are either set in opposing pairs horizontally, or they are set in layers vertically, or in the staircase they are set in a crisscross fashion similar to the swords. And, again, they would take minutes to unload because you just reach up and grab the gun. You couldn’t do it now, because we have everything wired in for security. But the system back then, they wouldn’t have worried about that.

Lloyd: I bet the Foundation would get upset if somebody could come and get one of your muskets by reaching up and grabbing it.

Erik: I’d be pretty upset if it got stolen, I’d also be pretty upset if we had a minor earthquake or a truck accident somewhere, and we had a little musket storm raining down in the stairwell, that wouldn’t be good either, so we have these things very well wired in.  

Lloyd: How long did it take you to do that? I mean the whole project, not hanging?

Erik: The whole project – from start to finish was about three years. From the time the first musket left the Palace from the old display to the time we put in the last pistol was   two and a half weeks. So, all the work was done behind the scenes well in advance of the installation period.

Lloyd: So during the three years you also went to England so three years is the whole thing – everything you did fits in three years.

Erik: Yes.

Lloyd: Okay, that makes a certain amount of sense. Now, I would think it would take longer than that to install them, but obviously that’s because I was installing them wrong to begin with. What will people think when they see it?

Erik: I think they’re going to be impressed, I think you have to be impressed. There are just so many weapons laid out so attractively that they now really open up the room. You know we don’t have the muskets on the ceiling any more, and we don’t have the colors, the flags hanging down into the middle of room any more so the space is much more open, and it’s brighter. Having said that, though, the walls are simply filled with arms; there are more weapons than there were before. I think in general the whole thing is a much stronger interpretive tool, because we can place the numbers, the different sorts of weapons in the Palace at that time period. There are so many different exciting things going on that the interpreters at the Palace are going to be talking about to our guests that I don’t think there’s anything they can do other than get excited about it. 

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check history.org 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 *