The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation isn't building the next generation of visitors center. It's building the next generation of visitor.
"Brick-and-mortar facilities will not do it alone. You need to be able to tell stories in a new way that will attract people's attention," explained Colin Campbell, the foundation's president.
It's hard to get the attention of a teenager who has been dragged through the Historic Triangle and who - when asked at Shield's Tavern what he learned at Jamestown that day - says, "It's old," to the snickering approval of his classmates. But that's the audience CW is targeting with a multimedia outreach.
"Because of their age and of not having much of an attention span, that's the challenge: to keep them awake," Campbell said. "But it's worth the effort."
It's no longer enough to be a national landmark. The wonder of the restoration effort and all the time and money that it took to bring 1776 back to life on Duke of Gloucester Street is gone. When people can see virtual-reality renditions of a Mars colony or an Elizabethan theater, what's the big deal about a few clapboard houses along one manure-strewn street?
When Campbell looked around for a new hook to bring people in, he returned to the phrase that John D. Rockefeller Jr. gave the foundation when he began the restoration: "that the future may learn from the past." He has made a case that CW's historical tale is not just a nice memento for an American to have in his or her hip pocket, like an unused library card. Instead, Campbell asserted, CW should serve as a life-or-death roadmap to the republic's future.
A new Web site will expand that point to a global scale. After Labor Day, the foundation plans a "soft launch" of a site focused on how U.S. citizenship and citizenship in the world are intertwined. Between the Jamestown 2007 events and the 2008 presidential campaign, there are a lot of forums debating that idea. CW's Web site will include a lot of video from those forums and provide ways for Web users to participate.
"It will be like YouTube for public discourse online," said Richard McCluney, vice president of the Productions, Publications, and Learning Ventures division of CW.
"The United States doesn't get launched by the American Revolution. What gets started is the idea of being a citizen, instead of a subject. That idea is still being debated today because we all have a dual citizenship - in our particular nation and also in the world at large."
Bill White, director of educational outreach at CW, marvels that U.S. organizations spend billions of dollars telling kids that their responsibility is to vote - and that's the sum total of citizenship. "Americans really are an ahistorical people. We look at the world around us, and we figure we're the only people who have ever dealt with this situation ever before. It's just happening right now for the first time, and there's a sense that we have to figure it out right now," he said. "We don't do a very good job of going back and looking at our past and what lessons are there and of understanding how other generations - even other Americans - have dealt with those kinds of issues."
The new citizenship Web site will welcome users in eight languages and have Colonial Williamsburg's logo on it, McCluney said.
"We think we're going to take some time to get it up, so we can get feedback to make it understandable and relevant and appealing to many people."
That kind of educational effort shows up in real attendance numbers for the foundation. School groups have provided the strongest growth in CW's attendance numbers. They represent the future of CW's business and of the national democracy. Last year's ad campaign, "The Colonial Me," featured young people musing about how they would live in Colonial times.
"The object is to get across that there is a larger History and that the larger History provides the context for the present - that this is who we are. We have our own individual stories that we come from that we relate to, but all of those individual stories in some larger way define us as a people, define us as a culture," McCluney said.
His team is the vanguard of Colonial Williamsburg's effort to extend its brand as a trusted source of early American information. Twenty years ago, CW focused on drawing families in minivans from Pennsylvania and New York. Now it's training teachers in California.
"On-site in the Historic Area, we are the absolute masters of something that nobody does as well as Colonial Williamsbug, and that's living history. And off-site, we have become very, very strong at doing - both in classroom and at home - the application of media," McCluney said. "But it's not about the technology. It's really about the stories we have to tell and making them relevant to people."
Part of the push comes from a planning reality: Schools are a more stable market year to year than families. The leaders of Virginia's major historic sites meet once a year to talk strategy, and in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they wondered whether attendance declines would be permanent. Campbell said that after the soul-searching, he decided the problem wasn't 9/11 but the History itself.
"External events can't be the target of our concern. Those things will happen, whether it's higher gas prices or a sniper causing fear or a natural disaster. They happen. That's just the nature of the universe. We can't control that," he said. "Our decision has been to try to do a better job of discussing History than blame the decline on external events."
RETURN TO REVOLUTION
Mixing tourists into a street-theater story called "Revolutionary City" increased CW's paid attendance to about 745,000, and a spokesman said attendance this year was up "slightly." It's a far cry from the late 1980s, when CW drew almost a million visitors, but "Revolutionary City" reinvigorated the museum's mission.
"The common view (is) that History is a series of immutable facts put on a granite stone somewhere that got broken into pieces. What this institution does for people is to introduce them to the idea that History is a conversation about who we are and about how we look at the past and how we got here," said White, the director of educational outreach.
This year's version of the story includes a merchant accused of hoarding supplies during wartime, to remind visitors of today's headlines about gas prices and Middle Eastern conflict. A costumed interpreter, during one recent performance, got some middle school boys in the crowd excited about this flashpoint, and soon, the boys were chanting "Down with profiteers!"
There are other connections, such as a husband and wife talking about his decision to leave home and go to war, as well as blacks struggling with issues of freedom and equality.
"We tend not to say to them, 'Let's talk about today and work back.' We start in the past and help them make the connection to today," White said. "We don't want to be, in these days of polarization, to ever be perceived as taking one part of today's political conversation. We want to be the sponsor of that conversation. We want to be the open forum where people can come from their place and come to the table and have a conversation about those issues."
Colonial Williamsburg invented the living-history museum 70 years ago and remains the largest practitioner of the style. So while other history museums are investing in new computer kiosks, CW continues to invest money and time in people to act out "Revolutionary City" or demonstrate a cooper's (barrel maker's) work.
"There is a liability to that. When those people leave, it's like an encyclopedia has left us, and we have to start all over again. There is a risk in the kind of work we do," said Rex Ellis, vice president of the Historic Area.
Part of the reason that CW is pushing digital tools outside the Historic Area is so no screens and kiosks go up on Duke of Gloucester Street.
For example, the foundation has created a 3-D model of the first theater in Williamsburg, which no longer stands in real dimensions. Foundation staffers are considering a similar rendering of the whole town in 1776, so visitors could visit second floors of buildings that they can't see now.
"It's on-site and online. These technologies in some cases are stand-alone, and obviously, they are the experience - but in other cases, they're really enriching the experience of coming here," said James Horn, vice president for research and director of CW's John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. "It's giving you perspectives you can't get in any other way. There's no other way of seeing Williamsburg in 1776 other than a real-time virtual environment."
McCluney said, "Williamsburg has always been a lot cleaner than the real Williamsburg would have been. We have way more trees now. It is more of a garden spot now than it was back then. The entire area around here was essentially clearcut. There were piles of slag and ashes and coals and manure all over the place. It was a working environment."
That's right: "Revolutionary City" might make visitors feel they are part of the authentic 1776, but it takes digital means to deliver the most accurate view of the town.
THE DIGITAL REALM
Colonial Williamsburg's digital push includes making its public Web site more than just the standard staff directory, photo gallery and MapQuest directions found on other historic-site Web pages.
Last year, www.history.org got 15.5 million visits, the most in one year since CW went online in 1996. The increase from 2005 hits was the biggest jump in visitation in the Web site's history, McCluney said. This year, the site is on track to get more than 20 million visits, McCluney said.
"A big chunk of the success really of the Web site is it is a living thing. It's an electronic publication. It's like a daily magazine. It's more than a newspaper but less than a television program, in terms of the media content," he said "It is fresh, current and appeals to many different audiences at many different levels."
There's a subscription service to schools, so they get a private space on the Web site. Podcasts targeting Gen X and Gen Y are featured on iTunes and feature conversations with intepreters in and out of character. Campbell's own grandson stumbled upon him on a podcast and realized for the first time what his grandfather did for a living.
Campbell has said he likes the interactive tools at new museums such as the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. CW has done 118 podcasts since the first one in 2005. There's a new one each week and an average of 73,000 downloads of those podcasts each month, according to Robyn Eoff, director of the Internet for CW.
"This seems to be connecting to the Gen X and Gen Y group in a level of reality that's working for a big chunk of that audience," McCluney said.
"We're not just putting up some information and saying, 'Here's some information.' We're really trying to make media that reaches the audience where the audience happens to be."
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