To bring life to the struggles and principles of the 18th century is the goal that guides Revolutionary City programs, says Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Colin Campbell.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Colin Campbell, who is president and chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. As I understand it, you’re getting ready to start a program about education for citizenship. Is that correct?
Colin Campbell: Well, actually, we’re already into it.
Lloyd: Oh, OK.
Colin: We’re very engaged in the education for citizenship.
Lloyd: I’m late, but…
Colin: No, you’re not late, but we are very much engaged with that. It’s the guiding principle, really, of our program in the Historic Area today in the Revolutionary City. It’s the guiding principle for our new educational outreach activities as well. So it’s a very important part of what we’re doing.
Lloyd: How did you get from historic preservation to citizenship?
Colin: Well, actually, historic preservation was an important part of Colonial Williamsburg’s mission, but it wasn’t the only part.
Colin: Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was one of our two founders, made it very clear from the outset that, as far as he was concerned, the lessons of Williamsburg as they relate to American history were every bit as important as part of the mission as was the issue of historic preservation. In fact, the motto of the foundation is, “That the future may learn from the past,” and that has a broad connotation.
Lloyd: I always thought of that in the rather limited sense of, “learn history,” but obviously, I was wrong.
Colin: Well, learn history, yes. But the history is more than historic preservation.
Lloyd: OK, I know a little bit about democracy in Greece because I studied it in college, as a lot of people did. Has that anything to do with it?
Colin: Has democracy in Greece anything to do with what we’re doing here?
Colin: Well, it had to do with the ways representative government got formed here in the New World, first in Jamestown and then in Williamsburg, so in that sense, yes, it does.
Lloyd: Will that be part of it, or will that be too far back for you to go?
Colin: I think that’s a little far back for us. What we want to focus on is what occurred here in the latter half of the 18th century. And it really ties more, in terms of historical base, to the Scottish enlightenment than it does to the Greek concepts.
Lloyd: I’m having a little difficulty with that, not a whole lot, but if you are voluntarily limiting yourself to a period of time and questions come up about, “Why did people in Colonial Williamsburg go over from obeying the crown to obeying the concept of obeying themselves?” How does that jump get made?
Colin: How does the jump get made in peoples’ minds?
Colin: Well, it seems to me, you tell the story. That’s what we do. We tell stories. And the stories around that period in the 18th century really are designed to show why people were willing to be subjects, and determined to be subjects when they came here. And how, over a period of time, because of developments here and in England, that they decided they didn’t want to be subjects anymore. That they really felt they were not having the opportunity for their own self-realization, essentially. And so they decided they were going to be citizens. The stories are what put it together.
Lloyd: Can you get those stories across? I mean, obviously, you’re trying to, but…
Colin: You could probably tell me better than I. We are trying to. And I think we are succeeding. Certainly, I read visitor commentary all the time. It is my clear impression that visitors are getting the message. And I’ve stood with visitors in the Duke of Gloucester Street and listened to the comments they make as they see some of these scenes. And their comments are interesting in two ways: “Oh, yes, I understand that,” that’s one thing, and the second comment is, “Oh, yeah, you know, that’s similar to the situation today.” So, I think people are getting it, which is what we intend.
Lloyd: I did a lot of writing about Revolutionary City when it first began and talked to people. People were fascinated that you could make it come to life again today as it did then.
Colin: Well, I’m glad to hear you say that, because we are delighted that it could come to life as it did then.
Lloyd: I wonder -- I am just naturally a skeptic and a cynic and I don’t think anything lasts very long – will you be able to keep it fresh next year, year after, year after that?
Colin: I’m really confident about next year, and even the year after that. But the challenge to keep this kind of programming fresh over the long haul is a real one. Well, what’s the alternative? It’s to go back to a situation which is a passive experience. And that’s not where the world is, that’s not where our visitors are. They want to interact, they want to be part of it, they want it to be alive, and I think we simply have to make it that way for them. I think that’s the challenge for us today and the next couple of years and it’s the challenge for our successors over the long haul, if we want them to come here – and we do.
Lloyd: I noticed recently in a speech that you gave to some group that visits to Colonial Williamsburg were up something like 5 percent for the first time in a couple of years, as I remember.
Colin: Yes, the first time in a long time.
Lloyd: Do you credit Revolutionary City with that?
Colin: I think it’s relevant. It’s hard to tell completely. But we are up 5 percent over last year. A big portion of that is in the leisure visitor, the person who reads about things in the paper and decides, “I want to go there.” And that’s up 14 percent. And, so, what that says to me is that there is something happening here that they are wanting to see and learn more about. I believe it’s Revolutionary City.
Lloyd: Not to give you more work than you already have, but if Revolutionary City seems to be working early on, might you want to develop another program if you had the ability to do it, about something along the lines of Revolutionary City, like, only, maybe, earlier?
Colin: Well, let me say first that, yes, we might want to develop more, and we are.
Lloyd: Oh, OK.
Colin: But it’s not earlier. It’s not a different time, but rather, greater depth. This next year, you will see in the Peyton Randolph house, for example, a program out in the yard at the Peyton Randolph house that tells more about Peyton Randolph, who is part of the feature Revolutionary City, and what life was like for him and for the slaves on his property.
We’re going to have the same thing out at the Palace. We’re going to get – Lord Dunmore will be out in the garden meeting with people and talking about what he thinks about what’s happening at the other end of town. The rebels, if you will. That’s one day.
On another day, Patrick Henry will be there talking about what he thinks it’s like to be living in the Governor’s Palace as the result of the Revolution, as the first governor of Virginia.
So, what we want to do is take the vignettes that are all presented now in the street and on the other part of the day, when the Revolutionary City is not going on, present a deeper picture of some of the people they’re going to meet in the Revolutionary City.
Lloyd: That would be interesting.
Colin: I think it’s going to be very interesting.
Lloyd: And you have a benefit there, where in Revolutionary City, it’s sort of up and down Duke of Gloucester…
Lloyd: … but at the Governor’s Palace and Peyton Randolph House, you have a controlled space.
Colin: That’s right. This is not managed access of the street. This is inside the grounds of the two properties. And we’ll also do the same thing at the Wythe House.
Lloyd: I did one of these interviews with the lady who plays Mrs. Peyton Randolph, and I asked her, “What was it like to have as many slaves as the Governor’s Palace to deal with?” And she said, “Two more.”
Colin: And who’s counting?
Lloyd: And who counts? But I guess that puts the Governor in his place.
Colin: Well, I think that was the point, don’t you?
Lloyd: Well, yeah, but I think it’s difficult for people now to really understand how people back then lived. I mean a kid 15 years old, 12 years old. What does he know about life without computers or television or air conditioning or the car? And I think that learning that would be kind of entertaining.
Colin: Well, I think so, and that’s what’s going to happen at the Peyton Randolph House more effectively than it can happen on the Duke of Gloucester Street, because you can go through the house. And they will be able to do that kind of thing. They will be able to see the work that the slaves do. They will listen to the slaves talk about their lifestyle. That’s part of what we do here in a number of different places, as I’m sure you know. But I think this will be more focused, and will give people an opportunity, particularly young people, that understanding they don’t have at this point.
Lloyd: For the people who are interpreting -- or, if you like, acting, or portraying citizens in Revolutionary City and at Peyton Randolph House, and at the Governor’s Palace -- when I have talked to them, they are rather deeply into the character they portray.
Colin: Yes, I know.
Lloyd: Do they ever – they certainly didn’t with me – but do they ever get tired of it? Can they keep it up for long periods of time?
Colin: Well, they have, although I think it’s really wonderful they’ve got a break now for several months, although some of them are still doing some of the scenes. They can do some reworking of their program and have an opportunity to get away from the routine, which I think is extremely important. But, isn’t that what Broadway actors do all the time? Night after night, for year after year, if they’re successful?
Lloyd: Ah, not for year after year. One of the longest-running plays was, what, two years? Two years here wouldn’t be enough to even get started.
Colin: No, no, that’s right, but I think in Broadway, in fact, in the musicals, “Pajama Game.” No, not “Pajama Game.” What was the name of that? Oh, that’s right, “Chorus Line.” That was the one that was on my mind. That was about five years.
Lloyd: Was it?
Colin: But they changed cast. And I suspect we will see some turnover. Partly because, you know, this is great exposure for these people. It’s going to result in opportunities for them.
Lloyd: I hadn’t thought about that, but that is quite pleasant from their point of view.
Colin: It is, and quite distressing from our point of view, perhaps, but that’s the way the world works.
Lloyd: You never know when you’re going to come across some little nugget that you didn’t know was there, so you can just hope for that.
Colin: Right. Right you are. We’ve discovered that already.
Lloyd: Oh, have you?
Colin: Oh, you mean in terms of cast?
Colin: Wow! There’s this fellow who plays the Marquis de Lafayette who has been around here quite a long time, who has played that role in a minor way at other times, and he’s now a first-class star in the Revolutionary City Program. He has been discovered.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.