CRM Journal

Book Review

Creating Colonial Williamsburg

By Anders Greenspan. Washington, DC, and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002; x + 212 pp., photographs, notes, bibliography of further reading, index; cloth $45.00; paper $17.95.


No other historic town in the United States has been so scrutinized as Colonial Williamsburg. Anders Greenspan gives us an assessment that is decidedly different from the one anthropologists Richard Handler and Eric Gable offered in The New History in an Old Museum.(1) Handler and Gable depicted Colonial Williamsburg's modern social history interpretive strategies as corporate-controlled and ineffectively delivered to audiences by the institution's 400 costumed interpreters. In stark contrast, Creating Colonial Williamsburg presents a balanced critique, leavened with succinct, thorough historical context. Greenspan argues that the history of creating Colonial Williamsburg holds the key to understanding the powerful influences that have shaped the institution's public presentations of the past and the ghosts of interpretation that still inhabit this cultural icon.

Rockefeller money and political ideology shaped and drove the enterprise from its inception until the mid-1970s. Rockefeller's largesse is well known, but Greenspan emphasizes the time and personal attention that John D. Rockefeller Jr., invested in Colonial Williamsburg from 1926 until his death in 1960. Not only did he enjoin his own ideals with the restoration process, but also by restoring a colonial town—and with it an appreciation of traditional values—Rockefeller sought to distance himself from his father's world of industrial might. He preferred his legacy to be "a tribute to those individuals who had created a nation based on liberty, democracy, and the worth of the individual."

Wealth combined with personal motive was a formidible force and John D. Rockefeller, III, went even further in the post-World War II years. The war itself changed the way Americans, including historians, perceived the past; and although the propagandistic use of history was more subtle during World War II than during the Great War, American history nonetheless was harnessed to serve the state. As Greenspan explains in the third chapter, Colonial Williamsburg played a prominent role in the war effort with troop education programs designed to inspire young men to fight for democratic ideals. When John D. Rockefeller, III, assumed control of Colonial Williamsburg in 1949, however, he brought with him a Cold War belief in "dynamic Americanism" and, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, used Colonial Williamsburg to promote "the virtues of the United States rather than merely warning of the evils of communism."

Greenspan notes that the Rockefellers could have used Colonial Williamsburg to influence desegregation in the post-war period but did not. Here Greenspan is at his best, acknowledging on the one hand that Colonial Williamsburg simply wrote African Americans out of its storyline about a Nation based on liberty, democracy, and the worth of the individual, and then ignored for nearly two decades Thad Tate's 1957 study revealing that slaves accounted for 50 percent of Williamsburg's population during the colonial era.(2) On the other hand, Greenspan points out that Virginia is, after all, a Southern State and that because a substantial percentage of visitors came from the South, Colonial Williamsburg gauged public opinion and "waited until there was a greater acceptance of the role of blacks in American history."

If inclusive history did not come fast enough for many of Colonial Williamsburg's critics, things changed after direct family control ended in the mid-1970s. Professional historians then began to steer toward a new thematic interpretive program infused with social history. As evidence of the change, history collided with public values and expectations in 1994 when Colonial Williamsburg presented a carefully planned slave auction re-enactment. Greenspan may indeed understate the resulting firestorm: "Such divisions over the representation of slavery revealed that Colonial Williamsburg would have a difficult time in promoting its desire to re-create the past more accurately."

Greenspan summarizes the historical ties between Colonial Williamsburg and the National Park Service, noting that the restoration of Williamsburg figured prominently in the 1930-31 effort to create Colonial National Monument in Yorktown and Jamestown, Virginia, which was designated as a unit of the National Park System in 1936. But his focus on institutional history leaves the ties between Colonial Williamsburg and the National Park Service largely unexamined.

Toward the end of the book, Greenspan suggests that Colonial Williamsburg strengthened the historic preservation movement by popularizing historic preservation. Greenspan does not develop this idea into an argument, but his suggestion raises an intriguing point about the tangled roles of public and private funding in the history of historic preservation. While popular magazine articles of the 1930s praised the unfolding restoration of Colonial Williamsburg financed by private wealth, the National Park Service quietly spent millions of New Deal dollars on preservation and played a parallel and significant role in professionalizing historic preservation.

This aside takes nothing away from Greenspan's achievement. Creating Colonial Williamsburg is expertly researched and beautifully written—a sympathetic yet unapologetic examination of America's most famous historic townscape.

Rebecca Conard
Middle Tennessee State University



1. Richard Handler and Eric Gable, The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).

2. Although the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation finally published Tate's work in 1965 under the title The Negro in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg, Greenspan notes on page 144 that as late as the mid-1970s, Tate's scholarship still had not been incorporated into the information provided to public audiences by front-line staff interpreters.