More Than a Restoration
President Colin Campbell
Gordon Wood, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Jim Lehrer, recipients of the Colonial Williamsburg Churchill Bell in April 2011 in recognition of lifetime commitment to citizenship education and public service, join Colin Campbell, left, and Andrea Mitchell, right, in a citizenship symposium.
The Idea of America Citizens Edition, the foundation's interactive online history curriculum for the general public.
From its inception, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has been a work in progress, a grand experiment in historic preservation and civic engagement.
No one had ever attempted anything like this before—a 20th century Virginia community returned to its 18th century appearance—and it demanded new, innovative methods of interpretation. We had to explore, with specialists and experts leading the way, how best to take advantage of the restoration of Virginia's colonial capital, Williamsburg.
Every step along the way, over many years, we gained insights into what worked and what fell short. We continuously improved our techniques, creating new programs to engage visitors and bring America's founding period alive. This enduring challenge remains an inspiration to all who work here. Getting it right enables us to have a beneficial and potentially lasting impact upon the work of self-government.
Today, once again, we find ourselves checking our assumptions against a shifting world, tested to keep up with a society that never sits still. In the span of a generation, communications technology has fundamentally altered the way people acquire, absorb, and share information. Computers in tablets and smartphones possess powers that were inconceivable a mere 20 years ago. It is a new world.
Yet, with all this easy, instant access to knowledge, we see a concurrent decline in heritage awareness, and the emergence of what has been described as "cultural amnesia." A worrisome diminution of civic education in our schools has growing numbers concerned over the strength and durability of democratic institutions.
Cultural commentators, examining current conditions from multiple perspectives, bemoan the state of American democracy, citing its polarized politics and the paucity of rational or even civil discourse.
We, in turn, have asked ourselves whether Colonial Williamsburg could make a more powerful and effective contribution to improving the state of civic knowledge and the foundations of public debate. Does the Revolution have lessons specifically useful to the American republic in 2012 and beyond?
We answer in the affirmative. The work of Colonial Williamsburg has become more compelling than ever.
American citizenship is constantly evolving. Over the course of our national history, the franchise became more comprehensive, more democratic, more shielding of civil liberties. Racial and ethnic hierarchies no longer shaped the republic. We discouraged privileged orders.
By so doing, we made the practical requirements of American citizenship more vital and significant. Civic passivity, while tolerable, was hardly desirable. We imagined an ideal of active citizenship, informed and principled.
But how exactly might Colonial Williamsburg advance that objective?
We begin by putting a straightforward label on what we are doing. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—long more than a restoration—will position itself as a center for history, citizenship, and democracy.
We have been engaged in citizen education for most of our institutional history and more overtly in recent years. We believe it is time to be clear and forthright in saying what kind of place we are and intend to be.
Preservation is still at the heart of our mandate, but the physical restoration of Virginia's colonial capital is only the starting point for understanding—and learning from—America's founding.
One essential, first lesson of history lies in the recognition that great national conflicts and challenges often echo through the past. On the subject of a divided America, for instance, journalist Max Lerner wrote in 1957 that "one may see in these polar impulses the proof that American life is deeply split. One may prefer to see them as contradictory parts of a bewildering puzzle. Or one may see them as signs of an effort, on a grander scale than ever in history, to resolve the conflicting impulses that are to be found in every civilization but each of which occurs here with a strength and tenacity scarcely witnessed elsewhere."
Yes, Americans do tend to infuse our great debates with strength and tenacity.
And the stakes do matter to the world. We remain the hope of the world that democratic self-government, on a great scale, can be successfully sustained.
Democracy is not self-actuating. We have to work at it continuously, and Colonial Williamsburg offers a powerful instrument for taking part. Our mission is to take the founding period and the struggle for liberty—preface to rebellion, war, and constitution—and bring it to life so it has meaning and relevance.
Within an established institutional structure, Colonial Williamsburg will create new programs and build upon existing offerings with the objective of encouraging understanding of and exchanging views on the fundamental values of the nation, the genesis of these values, what it will take to sustain them, and why it is critical that we do so.
We will work within our historic frame of reference, the American Revolution, examining its sources and its consequences.
Our goal will be to advance the public's understanding of America's founding democratic principles; to use the past as a vehicle for illuminating the social trends and political choices America faces today; to tell historically authentic stories about people who sought liberty and prosperity and were determined to build a government that fosters both.
We want more people than ever in Williamsburg. An estimated 1.7 million visitors came to the Historic Area last year. Here is where we have consistently done outstanding work and where we continue to take an innovative approach to historical interpretation.
But today technology enables us to connect with the world. The reach of Colonial Williamsburg has never been greater. As you will see elsewhere in this report, our educational outreach and teacher development programs continue to expand. Visits to our Internet site are growing dramatically. If there are social media channels to exploit with the lessons of American history, we are doing so.
Scholarship, rock solid and credible, lies at the base of our efforts. But we have plenty of room to be creative about how we engage and most effectively connect the public with America's founding period.
What we have learned since the introduction of the Revolutionary City street theater interpretive program—the presentation of stories that trigger an emotional and intellectual response—has helped form the basis for going forward.
In our work, indifference is the enemy. We depict events that sparked a revolution, and, when we do it right, the ideas resonate in the present. The questions early Americans faced—on national unity, law, ethics, and enterprise—became the basis for the great clashes over slavery, diversity, immigration, suffrage, civil rights, and the very definition of liberty and citizenship.
How we take these great historic American issues and make them relevant to the present is only limited by the imagination we bring to the task.
What sort of things will Colonial Williamsburg—a center for history, citizenship, and democracy—undertake?
We will sponsor forums, discussions, and town meetings.
We will inquire into the role of the media in a modern democratic society.
We will explore the role of the courts and the rule of law.
We will examine the military and the role of religion in society.
We will examine the democratic efforts of other nations and link them to our own.
And all this will be done within the framework of the American Revolution and the first, core choices made by our founders.
We want to create new audiences—multi-generational, diverse, motivational. We want to build on existing programs for teachers.
The renowned historian Gordon Wood, a Colonial Williamsburg senior trustee, in the introduction of a collection of his essays published last year, writes that "we go back to the Revolution and the values and institutions that came out of it in order to refresh and reaffirm our nationhood."
"That for me," he says, "is why the Revolutionary era remains so significant."
This great institution of Colonial Williamsburg, founded in the cause of the future, now has a decades-long legacy of its own. We intend to live up to it.
Colin G. Campbell
President and Chief Executive Officer