Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"A Grande Cappuccino, Prithee"

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has posted an item about a new exhibit in Colonial Williamsburg: Coffeehouses, Storytelling, and Relevance.

This could be the story of Starbucks, Saxby’s, or Caribou Coffee. This could be the story of hundreds of independent coffee houses that dot the American landscape. Almost 240 years ago, a Williamsburg wigmaker named Richard Charlton opened up a coffeehouse. A few feet from the capitol building; this coffeehouse served as a space where colonists would gather to talk, socialize, debate, and gossip.

However, in 1776, amidst revolutionary turmoil, that coffeehouse became the scene of a clash between the tyranny of the stamp act and revolutionary fever. Today, Colonial Williamsburg (CW) is reopening the coffeehouse to the public, and like much of the interpretation it will tell a familiar piece of the larger story about American independence. I read about this yesterday in the Washington Post in an article that talks about how CW’s shift to active storytelling is a part of their broader plan to make history relevant.

Colonial Williamsburg is the 800-pound gorilla in the field of American public history, and I believe most public historians and preservationists have a love/hate relationship with the place. On the one hand, it's a popular tourist destination and a successful commercial enterprise that provides historical interpretation to the vacationing masses who would otherwise be at a water park or some such place. On the other hand, it's one big agglomeration of Kolonial Kitsch that offers infotainment in reconstructed - not preserved, rehabilitated, or restored original - historic buildings and landscapes, therefore it's really not a fit place for proper education.

So the question for the big brains at the National Trust is whether it is relevant for tourists to sip coffee and hot chocolate at R. Charlton's Coffeehouse, which they will inevitably regard as an 18th century Ye Olde Starbucks. I say it is relevant, but for many history snobs that sort of "active storytelling" has too much fluff and sweetening for their taste, kind of like a big ol' Liberty Latte.

Personally, I am fond of CW, kitsch and all. I have vivid memories of my first visit there, at around the age of eight. My kids likewise have lasting impressions from their childhood visits, and at least one of my kids was so influenced by CW and all of the battlefields and historic buildings I dragged them through on weekends and vacations that he's now preparing to become a history teacher.

All museums and interpretive historic sites are in the entertainment business first, and the education business second. I was taught that Resonance and Wonder is at the heart of the museum experience: a visitor must first see something that attracts his interest, then, from reading an exhibit label or listening to a docent, he learns something that has relevance or significance to him. With apologies to Stephen Greenblatt, the title of his essay should have been the other way around. The wonder comes first, and then - maybe - the resonance.

The National Trust and other serious types ought to drop their qualms and embrace the wonder of infotainment. OK, so the Cofffeehouse will probably be full of people in cargo shorts and t-shirts saying stuff like "I know not what drink others may have, but as for me, give me a skinny caramel macchiato or give me death." What's the harm? They're on vacation, not in class. If the exhibit designers and interpreters do their jobs, and I'm sure they will, everybody will come away a little better for the experience.

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