"The other half" : making African-American history at Colonial Williamsburg

Lawson, Anna Logan, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Butler, Reginald, Department of History, University of Virginia

Museums are institutions that have long had a prominent role in creating and maintaining ideologies central to 20thcentury culture. Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated among history museums than at Colonial Williamsburg, the museum/town in Tidewater Virginia reconstructed by industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Now in its seventh decade, Colonial Williamsburg is seen by the public and by professionals in the museum field as a leader among traditional history museums, as the place which sets the standard in the preservation and interpretation of colonial America's physical buildings and its philosophical beliefs.

This dissertation describes and analyzes black history at Colonial Williamsburg, looking at the programs, at the people involved in developing and presenting them, and at the responses to them by both visitors and museum staff. For fifty years, the history of the white founding fathers was not just the dominant story in the museum's presentations, it was the only story. By museum standards it was a rich story, one bolstered with stacks of historical documents and original artifacts. In 1979 that changed when six African-American actors were hired to present black history. This was an area about which most of the museum's historians had done little research, and for which its V curators and archaeologists had collected few museum objects. In a museum context, the black past struggled to compete with the past of those for whom documentation and collections met traditional museum standards.

My project focuses on this scenario of primary and secondary - or dominant and subordinate - histories in the museum, and on the accompanying paradoxes and tensions. It is the study of a hegemonic situation involving people and departments, narratives about the past, and extending to the objects in the museum's collections. I show that this museum was a place where the values of America's dominant white culture were reinforced at nearly every turn, and I argue that, despite its best intentions and indeed imbedded in those intentions, Colonial Williamsburg not only reflected the hegemonic relationship which exists between blacks and whites in American culture, it often reproduced, unconsciously, the racism inherent in that hegemonic relationship.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:36:10.

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