the research microsite

CW Journal : Spring 01 : Message from the President

Message from the President

In Celebration of Tomorrow

President Colin Campbell

This year we commemorate Colonial Williamsburg’s seventy-fifth Anniversary. We mark it with a series of seminars, meetings, special events, and receptions. But what is it, exactly, that we celebrate? Three things: the place, its people, and its purpose.

As John D. Rockefeller Jr. set out to return the city to its eighteenth-century ambience, he wrote: “The purpose of this undertaking is to restore Williamsburg, so far as it may be possible, to what it was in the old colonial days and to make it a great center for historical study and inspiration.”

The Historic Area is the core of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It is the focus and a resource for our education efforts, indeed for everything we do. It is a remarkable collection of original buildings and reconstructions, trade sites and shops, greens and gardens, livestock and rare breeds, coaches and wagons, four taverns working in eighteenth-century fashion, and three-hundred-year old boulevards and byways. No wonder that, when he visited the Williamsburg Restoration, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed our central thoroughfare, the mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street, “The most historic avenue in all America.”

Everything at Colonial Williamsburg is presented with scrupulous attention to authenticity and quality. Authenticity that does not simply emphasize the well-known debates and call to arms that were of such importance at the birth of this country, but also portrays the shortcomings of the era in matters of race, gender, and religious tolerance. To my mind, the current relevance of much of what was happening in eighteenth-century Williamsburg is unmistakable.

The Historic Area is what most visitors come to see, but when they arrive, they find a good deal more. One of the most exciting current developments is the expansion of our Visitor Center, the gateway to the Historic Area. It will make visitors feel more welcome, and help them make the most of their time with us. It takes advantage of modern technology, but also remains the showplace of our 1957 classic film: Williamsburg—The Story of a Patriot.

The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum preserves and protects one of the nation’s leading collections of early American furnishings, paintings, prints, maps, silver, fabrics, ceramics, tablewares, firearms . . . and more. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is the first, and still the most comprehensive, repository of American folk art. The Winthrop A. Rockefeller Archaeology Museum at Carter’s Grove is devoted to the seventeenth-century archaeological discoveries in the area.

Priceless objects from these collections were included in the Winter Antiques Show exhibition—The Best Is Not Too Good For You—this January in New York. It was a marvelous testimony to the quality and range of Colonial Williamsburg’s collections and curatorial expertise. Traveling exhibitions will continue taking our museums’ treasures to ever more Americans. So will virtual exhibitions on the Web, a marvelous opportunity for the future. We intend that millions more people will have the opportunity to see and study our collections in Williamsburg and in cities across the country.

The rich array of programs and our educational outreach efforts are the product of the work conducted in our academic facilities at the Bruton Heights School Education Center. They include the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, home to a fine collection of rare books, manuscripts, and other research materials; the DeWitt Wallace Collections and Conservation Building, a state-of-the-art facility where treasured objects are conserved and given a rest from time to time; Bruton Heights School, the home of our historians and our outreach projects; and the Costume Design Center, with an exhaustive stock of authentic reproduction eighteenth-century apparel.

Colonial Williamsburg’s people, in costume and out, are integral to the success of the foundation. They are skilled, committed, and immensely loyal. Recent twenty and twenty-five year service celebrations were remarkable reminders of that loyalty and commitment. It was brought home to me on those occasions that Colonial Williamsburg has 460 employees with twenty or more years of service. That is a very impressive figure.

If they lived in Japan, some of Colonial Williamsburg’s historic trades people would surely be eligible for nomination as living national treasures. Some use historic craft techniques practiced today almost nowhere but here. Authentic eighteenth-century methods were recently employed in the reconstruction of the kitchen at our Peyton Randolph House. It is a marvelous example of exquisite workmanship and a fascinating educational experience for our visitors.

Other distinguished museums from across the country turn to our curators and conservators for help with authentication, appraisal, and conservation.

Our research and education staff conducts an annual institute that teaches teachers—350 classroom instructors each year—about colonial American history. By all accounts, including, in particular, those from the teachers themselves, this is a great experience that enlivens classrooms from coast to coast.

And our Colonial Williamsburg Productions team is nationally recognized for its groundbreaking work in what we call “distance learning”—eight annual televised school field trips, instructional videos and recordings, Internet instruction, and more.

Education is central to our mission. But to what end? Why take so much trouble over history? Why be so engaged with events that occurred two centuries ago?

Because in them are lessons to be learned that are relevant to our lives and to events today. For example, in the first hundred days of a new American presidency, we as a nation are only now recovering from an extraordinary electoral ordeal. Extraordinary, but not unprecedented.

Consider what Jefferson taught us in his first inaugural address, after winning the White House in a bitterly contested election decided in the House of Representatives by six votes. He said, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” The republic, as Jefferson said, will again “unite with one heart and one mind.”

Colonial Williamsburg is not about just yesterday. It is about the impact of yesterday on today and on tomorrow. Colonial Williamsburg is about the future. Jefferson wrote: “I like dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” So did Mr. Rockefeller. He penned Colonial Williamsburg’s credo: “That the future may learn from the past.”

The past teaches us how to approach—gives us the power to understand and to cope with—the opportunities, the difficulties, and the rewards the future holds.

We accept without much thought our rights to free speech, to free expression, and to freedom of the press. But the diversity of opinion, the wide-ranging, sometimes discordant, ideas that flood our newspapers and our airwaves and our Internet, are the lifeblood of our democracy. Even when those ideas and opinions are unpopular. Especially when they are unpopular.

We accept without question the individual’s right to freedom of conscience, to practice what religion we like, or to follow no faith at all. But most of us fail to remember the meaning of the phrase “establishment of religion,” until we reflect on the tyranny of state-mandated belief abroad.
We accept the freedom of the ballot to select our legislators and executives, but with each election fewer of our citizens exercise that right, apparently in the belief that their vote doesn’t matter. How mistaken November proved them to be.

If we do not instruct our children and remind ourselves that things were very different in our forefathers’ time, that freedoms we take for granted were in short supply, if we do not instruct our children and remind ourselves how those freedoms were won, then surely we will awake one day to find them lost—along with all the rest.

Colonial Williamsburg, and all that occurred here, instructs us in the meanings of our Revolution, its cultural and physical contexts, its economic and political processes, and their relevance to the generations that followed, as well as to the generations to come.

And that is the importance of history—the history we teach at, and that emanates from, Colonial Williamsburg—to our young people, and to our nation, and to our world. In the Historic Area, we interpret events, ideas, and objects to help visitors grasp the importance of their crucial role in the continuing development of our democracy.

As we plan a year of commemorative events, our goal is to get out the message of the importance of preserving and enhancing this special place, so that our children, and theirs, and the generations that will follow, will have the opportunity to experience the historical and cultural richness of Colonial Williamsburg.

Your appreciation of the place, people, and purpose of Colonial Williamsburg, and your support, add immeasurably to the spirit of renewal all of us in Williamsburg feel at this exciting moment in the history of the Restoration.

Colin Campbell signature

Colin G. Campbell