Colin Campbell discusses the joys and challenges of leading the foundation whose mission is to teach history, “that the future may learn from the past.”
August 1, 2005
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This stuff is new, and you’ll find it only on history.org. This is Behind the Scenes, where you meet the people who work here. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time I’m asking Colin Campbell, president and CEO of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Lloyd: In one way or another, you’ve been at Colonial Williamsburg since 1989 – 15, 16 years. How has it changed?
Colin Campbell: Well, it’s changed quite a lot actually, because during that period we have made a lot of physical changes – in hotels in particular – but also in the Historic Area and virtually doubled the size of the visitor center. So, physically it has changed a great deal. It has also changed – less happily – in the sense that the public admissions are down somewhat over the last decade. Actually, it started going down when I joined the board, and I don’t think there is any cause and effect there, (laughs)…
Lloyd: (Laughs heartily.)
Colin: …but they have, and I think it has a lot to do with external factors. But that has been a change and a challenge.
Lloyd: Speaking of challenge, you were, for 21 years, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, including president. Which is harder to run – a university or a foundation?
Colin: Well, Wesleyan University is a very interesting place. It is a liberal arts institution with a progressive culture, a culture that is rooted in a kind of activism among the students. That was pretty exciting – at times, pretty challenging. And, also of course, a faculty is a faculty is a faculty. Faculties are challenging in any institution, and we had a very interesting time with our faculty.
There was also an issue at Wesleyan that is very much like an issue I’m facing here at Colonial Williamsburg today, and that is when I took over the institution as president, it was on the one hand the highest endowed university in the country per student, and on the other hand was running a huge deficit – a larger deficit proportionately than we have ever run at Colonial Williamsburg. So it was a turn-around project financially, and it was really a tough assignment for quite a while, because I became president in 1970 in the time of student revolution. So the notion that decisions were going to be made by the president that were going to affect their lives in any fundamental way really was very upsetting [to the students]. Plus the fact that people were concerned about Viet Nam, and people were concerned about racial issues, and we were just becoming coeducational, and there were big issues around gender questions, so it was a tumultuous 24 and seven job. And guess what? So is Colonial Williamsburg.
Lloyd: I was going to say that you got a break when you came here, but no, you didn’t.
Colin: So, I had a break in between. I would not be able to say which was a more difficult assignment. They both were challenging.
Lloyd: Let me jump ahead, because I don’t want to miss this. 2007 is going to be the biggest thing around here in years and years and years. Are you happy that you are here to do that, or would you rather that fall on somebody else’s shift?
Colin: Oh, there is no question I am happy I’m here to do that. I’m very excited about 2007. I hope it meets your forecast as being the biggest thing to happen around here in a very long time. The job we have – and a number of us here are working hard on this job – is to make sure that people across the nation, and indeed beyond, understand what a big thing it is, and how important it is and decide it is their time to pay us a visit.
Lloyd: You have in Williamsburg hundreds of buildings, a thousand or so interpreters, all sorts of programs on the Web; you’ve got outreach education programs…there’s really no way to tell how many people in a given year Colonial Williamsburg reaches. What do you want them to take away, however they get it?
Colin: Well let me challenge your premise a little bit. I think we have a pretty good sense about how many people we reach, because we know how many people pay to come to Colonial Williamsburg; we know how many people visit us basically without buying tickets. We know how many students we’re now reaching in our electronic field trip program – both those who reach it through their schools that subscribe and those who just watch it through their classrooms. We know our visits to our Internet site – and it’s a huge number. You put it all together, and it’s well north of 10 million people that we are reaching with our message.
What’s the message? I think from my perspective the message is that this is a place where some fundamental American values were articulated and fought for, and won, and sustained. That’s what I think is so important about the place, and people need to understand – among other things – that it took a tremendous amount of courage for people to do what they did here in the 18th century. That it wasn’t an easy ride. And that people who kind of look at today’s society and sort of throw up their hands, ought to think back to what it was like then.
I think the connection between 18th-century political and social life and 21st-century political and social life is really quite clear and quite important, and I’d love to get that message across to everybody that’s in touch with us.
Lloyd: Is that what “that the future may learn from the past” means?
Colin: “That the future may learn from the past” is exactly what it means.
Lloyd: It’s on everything that Colonial Williamsburg does.
Colin: That’s our… I don’t know if “motto” is the right term, but Mr. Rockefeller coined the phrase, and I think it is a very good phrase for the place. Today, we put more emphasis – capital letters, if you will – on future. That the future may learn from the past. And that means that we need to reach more effectively more young people so that they can learn what happened here, why it is important to them today, why it’s important to their future and the nation’s future.
Lloyd: Is that the reason for the schools program, the schools-on-television program?
Colin: You mean the distance learning effort?
Colin: That’s the reason. We reach out and get the message to students across the country, get the history lesson. History is not in great shape in our schools today – the teaching of history. And, we are doing things in a different way – both in the way we reach students through our Internet programming – and the way they can respond, by the way, it’s interactive – and also in the way we train teachers… because if you keep in mind that 500 or more teachers come here for an immersion in colonial history in the summertime, those teachers are then in a position to reach hundreds of students. So, from our perspective, we are getting that important message out in two important ways, two significant ways.
Lloyd: History is not being taught very well – my son is a high school teacher who complains bitterly about history lessons being boring. When you get the teachers here, do you think you’re getting to them in a pleasant way?
Colin: You should see the letters I get! One today – but one almost every day, because they are here now this summer, a week at a time – saying what an experience it has been, how much it has meant to them, how much it has changed their teaching, and in some cases, actually changed their lives, and certainly changed their outlook. Because they realize that there is a way to teach history, which is not boring. We do that. We teach history every day. They are in a practicum, essentially; they’re here learning how to teach history differently, and also, frankly, learning how important the history that is taught here is. So, I think it is a very, very important program.
Lloyd: Just as an aside, when Ann Richards was governor of Texas, I was talking to her, and she complained…she had been a history teacher… and she looked at me, and she said, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to get teenagers to memorize the kings and queens of England during a hormonal attack?”
Colin: (Laughs.) That’s Ann Richards, for sure, but maybe the premise is the problem. Memorizing the kings and queens isn’t where we start in the way we teach history here. We start teaching about what happened. And, you know what? People leave here knowing who George III was. They know about Jefferson and Henry. But they didn’t start out learning when they were born and when they died. They start out learning what happened, and what they did.
Lloyd: The Roanoke Times, to change the subject a little bit…said the next governor of Virginia could be the first one since Thomas Jefferson to be inaugurated at Colonial Williamsburg next January. Is that just them guessing, or…
Colin: No…will be…will be…the inauguration will be at the old capitol here in Williamsburg next January 14. That’s because the capitol in Richmond is wrapped in whatever you wrap things in when you re-do them. But it is really not accessible.
When we announced our sponsorship for 2007, Governor Warner and I were part of the announcement, I said to him, “If you are ever in the need of a capitol, let me know,” because we were in the middle of this construction site. And, my goodness, he did; they did let me know. And the legislature recommended that this occur; and it’s going to occur, and it is going to be wonderful – and I think, by the way, a great opportunity for the new governor to have a much broader public image than he would have if inaugurated in Richmond. And, for Colonial Williamsburg, it’s a very exciting activity for us.
Lloyd: And a great way to get 2007 started…a bit early, but still…
Colin: It’s not so early; it’s not so early…in 2007…one of its main events has already occurred, which is 2006 – the 225th anniversary of the victory at Yorktown, which is kind of a signature event for 2007.
Lloyd: I read in a speech you made where you said Williamsburg was going to create a revolutionary city inside the Historic Area.
Colin: That’s right.
Lloyd: How is that going, if you can say it that way?
Colin: Well, I think it’s going…we’re in a planning process right now. I think it is going very well. What we’re trying to do is to encapsulate the story in two parts really, it will be – first the failure of royal government, and then a city in revolution – in a way that brings some coherence to our programming, and people can understand over a two-hour period exactly what happened here, and why we think it is so important. And, do it in a theatrical way. It’s actually going to be a performance. It will be scripted, and it will be actually multiple performances – lots of things going on in a defined area – in order to bring a greater sense of engagement and excitement to our guests.
Lloyd: You also said fairly recently that you were going to invest the time that was needed so you could find out what best to do with Carter’s Grove. Have you had enough time yet?
Colin: We haven’t resolved the issue yet. And, it’s a tough issue, because Carter’s Grove is removed from our central site here. It is important, but it’s not an original home. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. The view shed is wonderful. The archaeology is very substantial out there, very important.
And, there is a great 17th-century site on the property. And all of those issues are issues for us, because we are trying to manage a very large Historic Area right here in town, and that has to be our first priority. So, we’re trying to figure out how we deal with it under those circumstances.
Lloyd: Were you referring to Wolstenholme Towne?
Colin: Wolstenholme Towne. Yes.
Lloyd: I was there and have a little brick from it.
Colin: Oh do you?
Lloyd: Ivor Noel Hume gave it to me.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.