Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Well, we're in the business of faking it, aren't we?"

Fair warning, this post might be a work in progress, because it's long and I don't really feel like editing it further at the moment.

And again, the “these are my own observations and not necessarily anyone else's” disclaimer.

Also, in case anyone out there is interested in the official/technical version of the project I'm involved with right now, or if you just want to know details about stuff I may not know or just don't get into here, here is Colonial Williamsburg's website for the Armoury Project. The blog seems to be more about the reconstruction work than the archaeology, and I don't think either of the webcams currently has any of the excavation work in the frame (although at least one of them has in the past and might again at some point), but it's interesting nonetheless.

Anyway. Williamsburg is a small city that sometimes feels more like a very concentrated suburb. It's a city of quaint neighborhoods full of tiny little houses, of untold numbers of hotels for tourists and apartment complexes for college students and poorly paid service-sector employees, of more shopping centers and restaurants than anyone needs in one place. It's a city of clapboards and picket fences, of unfathomable street layouts, of Southern heat and abrupt coastal rainstorms that are quick to flood its many low-lying roads, and of astonishing variety in gas prices from one street to the next. I love it. I hate it. I want to stay here forever, and I don't understand why anyone finds it so appealing. I'm not sure anymore whether the contradictions are in the city itself or in me. Or both.

But speaking of contradictions, I do know one thing: Colonial Williamsburg is an interesting place. Part nonprofit museum and part vacation-business corporation; part historic downtown area and part semi-falsified reconstruction (read: part window to the past and part hilariously misleading facade); part lovely (and loving) venue for learning and reflection and part corny and vapid entertainment center. Many cities have historic districts, and many of them are tourist attractions or host special events, and many of them are preserved and/or reconstructed to some extent, or at least have rules about how things have to look. None that I've ever seen takes it to the same level as Williamsburg.

Among other things, I've been really struck by the geographical scale of Colonial Williamsburg. Even all my years of reading and the intense discussion, accompanied by a not-so-flattering monograph about a study of CW's operations ca. 1990, in my historical memory seminar this past semester did not fully prepare me for the size of the place. It's literally a town within a town. It goes on for blocks. It takes me close to a good fifteen minutes to walk the length of Duke of Gloucester Street, the main street of the historic area, and that's without stopping or entering buildings or exploring side streets, of which there are many. And I walk somewhat fast, too.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should probably mention that this is not actually the first time I've seen Colonial Williamsburg in person. We did the whole family vacation thing over Thanksgiving break when I was in fifth grade, which pretty much made my life at the time, but about which I barely remember anything now. For all intents and purposes, I saw it all—historic area and city at large—with entirely fresh eyes when I first arrived here two weeks ago. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing in the end, but it certainly means that I do not, and never will, have a baseline perception of CW through the eyes of a tourist and casual history buff. I am behind the scenes, maybe even behind behind-the-scenes, and even when I'm not, if I wander through on a Saturday morning, for example, then my perception is still colored, if not by that, then at the very least by my training as an academic historian, with a critical eye towards presentation and interpretation as much as factual accuracy.

I ran into a woman in colonial garb at the grocery store after work the other day, and had to turn away before she saw me laughing—not at her, just at the ridiculousness of the situation. I'm told you stop noticing things like that if you live here long enough, but for me, right now, it's still jarring.

A lot of it is jarring, actually. I've been around theatrical productions enough that having a conversation with the costumed blacksmith, who takes an active interest in the archaeology going on, or with one of the first-person interpreters* who comes over on a break to see what we're up to, didn't strike me as that strange. On the other hand, the first time I saw a contingent of Redcoats marching down the street, it got my attention in a much bigger way. Each day at lunchtime, I and two others on the field crew get soft-serve ice cream from a tavern outbuilding where two people dressed as 18th-century colonists operate 21st-century soda fountains in an air-conditioned shed. The whole juxtaposition of 21st-century tourism, vacationers wandering haphazardly around, with this elegant facsimile of a colonial city, where there are also people who dress and talk as if they actually belong there, is very unsettling to me. I like for things to be ordered and realistic and in their right place. I like the idea of time travel, but the anarchic feel of CW's faux time travel gets to me. And although it's fun (and funny) to be on the inside and able to see what's behind the curtain, so to speak, it's also a little bizarre.

That said, if you really want to pretend to step back in time in Williamsburg, the secret is to walk into the colonial area super early in the morning. The archaeological field crew arrives at 7:30 (so that we can work before it really heats up for the day, ending earlier than usual in the afternoon). That's an hour or so before the buildings and shops open for tourists, and half an hour before they even close the main roads to anything with a motor, not that there's a lot of traffic other than some police/security cars and maintenance vehicles—and those are allowed through, at least in some places, even during the day when the streets are officially closed. When the streets are empty, except for an earlybird employee in costume here and there, and maybe a jogger or someone walking a dog or two, it's a very different feel from when we leave the site and walk back through town at noon or at the end of the day, when everything is bustling with herds of tourists in shorts and tank tops, carrying maps and shopping bags and typically looking vacant. That's just strange. With no one around, it's a bit like a ghost town—but at least it's a ghost town that doesn't feel like some kind of time warp. Or just fake (even though, depending on how you define “fake,” much of it probably is). As someone argued on our lunch break today, “CW is kind of Twilight Zone-y,” a statement with which I agree wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, before-hours is also a good time to catch costumed employees showing up for work, wearing 18th-century clothes, but walking bikes or carrying backpacks.

And of course, the empty streets are still paved, which makes me giggle a little. Sandy and unmarked, but definitely asphalt. I also caught a guy in costume wearing sneakers the other day. They were black sneakers, and partially concealed, so it was subtle. But not subtle enough you wouldn't notice if you looked at his feet. Sometimes, if you're in the northern half of the colonial area, or even the southern half and just listen carefully, you occasionally hear the unmistakable roar of a freight train passing by on the other side of Lafayette Street, the northern boundary of the historic area. I know for a fact that the perfectly manicured hedges are not trimmed by hand, but with gas-powered lawn equipment, and that the infamous horse poop on the streets is in fact cleaned up now and then—just not while tourists are around to have their experience detracted from. (I guess it's a question of balance. Not enough horse poop and the tourists complain it's inauthentic; too much horse poop and they complain that it's dirty. Never mind the fact that either way, [I strongly suspect] the number of horses here is far below what would actually be representative of the 1770s. Think about that.) If you look closely enough at your surroundings, you can sometimes see the hidden air conditioners in certain windows and the small parking lots concealed behind shrubbery. The archaeological excavation at the armoury complex goes hand in hand with the armoury reconstruction project, and over at the construction-site portion of the site, backhoes and forklifts and dump trucks abound, though they're out of sight of Duke of Gloucester St and possibly far enough from the beaten path that many people don't notice. Those foundations don't get laid by hand, even if much of the rest of the building might be built the old-fashioned way.

One thing I respect and appreciate is that most of the buildings have small plaques on them indicating what they were and/or who owned them in the period to which they've been restored, and these plaques, for the most part, clearly indicate whether the building in question is the restored original or a reconstruction. In general, I take no offense to reconstructions if they're clearly indicated as such and are at least someone's best educated guess as far as accuracy in appearance is concerned. And as for the educated guesses, when research brings up new information that changes the guesses, CW makes changes to the buildings. Right now they're rebuilding the armoury (formerly known as the blacksmith's shop) as a substantial brick building to replace what was essentially a wooden shack in the incarnation that was torn down last fall, because it makes far more sense historically that it would have been something big and sturdy and lasting. (Or so I understand; I don't pretend to have actually read any of the research on this. I assume someone has. It's probably even summarized on the informational signs on-site, at which I haven't looked very closely.)

However, I have yet to see or hear anything that makes clear the extent to which the very landscape of Williamsburg was altered in the “restoration” (you'll never hear anyone say “reconstruction΅ in such a general sense, although I think more was rebuilt than was merely restored) of the historic area. And that's something I think I have a right to be bitter about, not just because it's a misleading contradiction of CW's mantra of authenticity, but because I'm currently part of the field crew that spent the last week digging our way through two solid feet of clay that was used to fill in a ravine in the 1930s and bring the ground there up to the same level as everything around it. Apparently, the perfect colonial city was flat. Even if it wasn't.

Like I said, it's interesting. Williamsburg masks the past even as it attempts to bring it back to life. And then it masks the masking. There are layers upon layers (HAHAHA ARCHAEOLOGY PUN) of facades.

* CW's fancy way of saying an actor playing a character, as opposed to others, like some tour guides, who wear a costume to blend in but retain their modern persona.

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