The New History in an Old Museum

Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg

The New History in an Old Museum

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 18 b&w photographs Published: July 1997

American Studies, Anthropology > Museum Studies, History > U.S. History

The New History in an Old Museum is an exploration of "historical truth" as presented at Colonial Williamsburg. More than a detailed history of a museum and tourist attraction, it examines the packaging of American history, and consumerism and the manufacturing of cultural beliefs. Through extensive fieldwork—including numerous site visits, interviews with employees and visitors, and archival research—Richard Handler and Eric Gable illustrate how corporate sensibility blends with pedagogical principle in Colonial Williamsburg to blur the lines between education and entertainment, patriotism and revisionism.
During much of its existence, the "living museum" at Williamsburg has been considered a patriotic shrine, celebrating the upscale lifestyles of Virginia’s colonial-era elite. But in recent decades a new generation of social historians has injected a more populist and critical slant to the site’s narrative of nationhood. For example, in interactions with museum visitors, employees now relate stories about the experiences of African Americans and women, stories that several years ago did not enter into descriptions of life in Colonial Williamsburg. Handler and Gable focus on the way this public history is managed, as historians and administrators define historiographical policy and middle-level managers train and direct front-line staff to deliver this "product" to the public. They explore how visitors consume or modify what they hear and see, and reveal how interpreters and craftspeople resist or acquiesce in being managed. By deploying the voices of these various actors in a richly textured narrative, The New History in an Old Museum highlights the elements of cultural consensus that emerge from this cacophony of conflict and negotiation.


The New History in an Old Museum is an ethnographic study that transcends earlier museum scholarship by exploring the complete social world of this museum from its corporate culture to its intellectual goals to the visitor experience. . . . This is a pioneering work that challenges museums to deliver a history that is complex, honest, and meaningful. . . . Ultimately, Handler and Gable have provided a great service. They have moved the discourse from an examination of the contested nature of exhibitions to a fuller and more meaningful exploration of the world of museums.” — Lonnie Bunch , Journal of American History

The New History in an Old Museum is interesting not only for its object of study, but for what it reveals about the mechanisms of history-making; in this regard Handler and Gable succeed in making constructivism tangible through a specific study. . . . I would recommend this book for scholars and students in any of the cultural studies discliplines.” — Michael T. Carroll , Journal of American Culture

The New History in an Old Museum is interesting not only for its object of study, but for what it reveals about the mechanisms of history-making; in this regard, Handler and Gable succeed in making constructivism tangible through a specific study. Another important lesson taught by [the book] concerns the university’s current struggles with corporatism, and more than a few times, I found disturbing parallels between the ‘good vibes’/consumer satisfaction approach and current trends in higher education. . . . [Recommended] for scholars and students in any of the cultural studies disciplines.” — H-Net Reviews

The New History in an Old Museum offers an unusually detailed portrait of how historical narratives are produced at one popular and influential site for public memory.” — , Cultural Anthropology

“[A] great contribution to the cause of a history that matters. The authors earnestly contend for presentations of the past to make a difference to the politics of our world through socially engaged history for a mass public. Handler and Gable challenge reflection on these issues with their set of close ethnographic studies of interpretive operations for visitors at Williamsburg, and their accounts—alternately historical and ethnographic—of the corporate management of these activities and the persons who deliver them. Their insights into the forms of controlling hegemony at work are strong and disturbing. . . . Handler and Gable’s arresting insights are supported by a fine set of vividly presented narratives of episodes and reports of interviews, as well as by very perceptive commentaries.” — , The Public Historian

“[An] accessible and . . . engaging book. . . . [I]t provides valuable insights into how history is presented and why the best intentions go awry.” — , Publishers Weekly

“[Handler and Gable] prove that for all the flash and smoke of the ‘culture wars,’ for all the radical claims of the new historians and the vicious backlash of their detractors, ‘social history has hardly had the kind of insurgent effect its critics claim for it.’ . . . Lively and critical.” — , Village Voice

“Thought-provoking. . . . Useful for history museum professionals, those involved in other areas of public history, and historians interested in how history is portrayed for and accepted by general audiences. Additionally, this makes a fine textbook for students pursuing careers in history outside the academy.” — Marilyn Zoidis , Journal of Social History

“Both useful and provocative, this study subjects America’s largest and most celebrated history museum to the sometimes disquieting scrutiny of two professional ethnographers.” — , American Historical Review

“Drawing on intensive fieldwork conducted in 1990 and 1991, the authors explore the internal politics of the museum and its foundation and conclude that the record is decidedly mixed.” — “Nota Bene” , Chronicle of Higher Education

“Examining the production of history at such an important organization is a project well worth undertaking, and the authors offer rich insights into the process.” — , Journal of Southern History

“Handler and Gable elude the trap that snares most scholars of American culture by refusing to view Williamsburg’s version of the American past either as dictated by some nefarious conspiracy that controls the historic site, or by the consumers who pay to visit it. . . . [A] sophisticated account of how a cacophony of voices adds up to little more than white noise.” — , In These Times

“Handler and Gable’s book combines ethnographic detail with astute social analysis. Particularly interesting is the account of a wage dispute between the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the union that represents most of its workers. The episode is a stark reminder that the preservation of the past often depends on the contingencies of a local service economy.” — Leah Dilworth, Lingua Franca

“Readers of this study will find new insights into the inner workings of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and they will learn more about the choices history museums must make to remain viable as both educational institutions and places of entertainment.” — , Virginia Libraries

“Richard Handler and Eric Gable deserve plaudits for a provocative analysis of America’s archetypal historic site and for exploring the gulf that separates the aspirations of its historians-curators from the everyday realities of interpreting a slice of the past for everyday audiences.” — , William & Mary Quarterly

“The authors show how the viscid nature of a large organization can effectively process an academic debate into a consumable product for museum visitors. This not only puts the effects of academic discourse in everyday museum practice into perspective, but it also shows the force of enterprise culture in the modern museum.” — Erik Hitters , Focaal

“The scope of their research—which consisted of countless visits to the museum, observation of activities, and extensive research in the museum archives—is truly amazing, and the result is a fascinating book.” — , Library Journal

“This is an important book about an urgent topic. . . . This book establishes that as long as politeness and civility are the primary values to be met by visitors at an outdoor history museum, there is no possibility that a critical or reflexive history can be taught. . . . Handler and Gable allow us to see that Colonial Williamsburg is a corporation that provides admission to graciousness. Normally, shrines sell admission to Grace. The authors also show that if Williamsburg is a shrine to America’s founding ideals, then its own historians argue, these must include slavery, racism, and class. . . . Handler and Gable argue from large amounts of internal data that Williamsburg cannot be a lesson in reality. But they do think the museum can be reformed to achieve its goals.” — , American Anthropologist

“This study goes beyond the scope of most museum research (which seeks to determine the messages that are communicated to visitors), and that is what is most interesting about the book. The New History in an Old Museum explores the museum itself as a multifaceted social system that constructs its own values and transmits those values through its interpretive programs.” — , Winterthur Portfolio

“A study quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen: in its depth of research, breadth of conception, theoretical sophistication, and incisiveness of judgment, it seems to me unmatched.” — Peter Novick, University of Chicago

“In this impressive ethnography of Williamsburg, Handler and Gable take us behind the scenes and show us the roles of professional historians, front-line interpreters, corporate officials, and service workers in shaping the portrait of eighteenth-century Virginia that is presented. I know of no other book that presents such a complete and complex portrait of the museum as a social, economic, and cultural institution.” — Roy Rosenzweig, George Mason University

“This manuscript is a deep and original work of cultural critique. It will go a long way in improving the image of cultural studies scholarship among historians, anthropologists, and others, who hold it in suspicion. I am sure this study will be much cited as such an exemplar in several fields.” — George E. Marcus, Rice University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Richard Handler is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia.

Eric Gable is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Mary Washington College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

1. The New History in an Old Museum 3

2. Imag[in]ing Colonial Williamsburg 28

3. Why History Changes, or, Two Theories of History Making 50

4. Just the Facts 78

5. Social History on the Ground 102

6. The Company Line: Aspects of Corporate Culture at Colonial Williamsburg 125

7. The Front Line: Smile Free or Die 170

8. Picket Lines 208

9. The Bottom Line 220

Notes 237

Works Cited 249

Index 258

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1974-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1978-8
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