The New History in an Old Museum

Writing assignment on Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s article, The New History in an Old Museum. Specifically this writing assignment helps to explain different approaches to public history as explained by Handler and Gable. 

Questions for Richard Handler and Eric Gable, The New History in an Old Museum (Duke, 1997)

By Tom White

Chapter I: The New History in an Old Museum

1. When Richard Handler and Eric Gable talk about the “New History,” what do they mean?

When Richard Handler and Eric Gable talk about the “New History”, what they are referring to is a history which is reflective of an all-inclusive past, rather than just a narrow version of the past which only focused on “great men and elites.”[1]

 What type of history is the “New History”?

New History” is a type of history which encompasses the vast majority of the American population and includes all aspects of history such as oppression, exploitation, and social conflict.

2. What problems do social historians have with “older” or “more traditional” types of history?

The problems that social historians have with the “older or more traditional” types of history is that these past histories were too “consensus and celebratory”[2], in the way they presented America’s past, often overlooking the injustice and struggle which were also part of America’s past. Social historians want to see more balance in the way America’s past is presented to the public, a more ‘warts and all’ approach.

3. Handler and Gable say that social history is “constructionist” and “relativistic.” What do these terms mean?

When Handler and Gable refer to “constructionist” history they are describing history which has been presented by individuals who have their own ‘interests and biases”[3], and these same “interests and biases” are reflected in their work. Relativistic history refers to a history that depending upon on cultural context in which it is made will have a decidedly different meaning to different people. The point that Handler and Gable are trying to make when describing both terms, is that the general public should be encouraged to use their own critical thinking skills when examining the history which is being presented to them because history presentations can and often are shaped by cultural and political climate.

4. When did social historians bring their approach to Williamsburg, and what did they hope to accomplish?

 Social historians brought their approach to Williamsburg in the 1970’s, during a time of “declining visitation.”[4] It was the goal of social historians to redress the previous historic presentation which emphasized “consensus and celebration”[5], while at the same time reclaiming declining attendance.

5. What “obstacles” did the social historians face at Williamsburg?

The social historians at Williamsburg faced two major obstacles. The first obstacle faced by social historians was the special interests and attitudes that were “congenial to the elites”[6] that funded the institution. According to Handler and Gable these elites who funded the institution had a vested interest in seeing that the status quo which linked their own genealogies to the founding fathers at Williamsburg was maintained, because this group profited from having these circumstances. The second obstacle was how to deal with an historic institution that over the years had become a huge tourist attraction, and as such found itself “bordering between mass entertainment and mass education”[7] The social historians had to be able to present a new history to an audience that was not only something that an audience would be interested in, it also had to be commercially viable.

6. Handler and Gable talk about “critical history and celebratory history” being “juxtaposed paradigms…in what conservative intellectuals have managed to characterize as a ‘culture war’ ” (Handler, New History, 7).

What does this mean, or more specifically: a) what is the difference between critical history and celebratory history; b) which side do Handler and Gable think the “New (social) History” is on; and c) where have some of the main struggles in the “culture war” occurred?

The difference between critical history and celebratory history is that critical history is authentic or all inclusive history that presents history warts and all. Critical history is a history which includes as Handler and Gable have stated “road apples and tulips, slavery and patriotism…”[8] Critical history is unlike celebratory history in that it includes the sorrier chapters of history along with the good. Celebratory history on the other hand is the antithesis of critical history in that it is exclusionary. Celebratory history only focuses upon those aspects of history which its presenters want to celebrate, be it America’s greatness, the accomplishments of certain historical figures, or a certain demographic value, but does so while not addressing aspects of history that were important contributing factors.

The main struggles between the “culture war” can be found in those elements of the conservative intelligentsia who believe that those social historians who wish to espouse the practice of “critical history” are essentially “tenured radicals”[9] who have infiltrated American institutions, and are intent on subverting the foundation of American values.

7. When and how did Handler, Gable, and Anna Lawson carry out their research at Williamsburg?

Handler, Gable and Lawson carried out their research in January 1990. To accomplish their research they interviewed almost everyone associated with the Williamsburg foundation from “vice presidents, to department managers, to frontline interpreters…”[10] and an array of support staff which included secretaries and researchers, etc… Handler, Gable, and Lawson’s research also included searching through foundation archives to track policy changes, attitudes, and to glean statistics on attendance

8. How did Handler and Gable describe the “two sides” of the organization at Colonial Williamsburg?

Handler and Gable describe the two sides as distinct separate organizations. One side is the education or museum side of the foundation while the other is the business organization and “holds title to properties which have been purchased for business uses.”[11],

9. Who are the people that visit Colonial Williamsburg?

The people that visit Colonial Williamsburg are typically white, between the ages of 35 and 64. Williamsburg receives roughly 1 million visitors a year, with most visitors coming from within a “500 mile radius from the Northeast states”[12].

Chapter III: Why History Changes, or, Two Theories of History Making

1. What is the “Patriot’s Tour”?

The “Patriot’s Tour is a tour which is reserved for purchasers of a Patriot’s Pass and is “Colonial Williamsburg most expensive ticket.”[13] The tour introduces the audience to all of the historic themes of Colonial Williamsburg, but in much greater detail.

How is it a “kinetic map to Colonial Williamsburg and its work”?

The Patriot’s Tour serves as a kinetic map of Colonial Williamsburg and its work because, of the overwhelming amount of information that constitutes the Williamsburg tour and the way that this material is managed by the tour operator. As a result of the way in which the material is managed, it presents Williamsburg and the foundation in the best favorable light

2. Handler and Gable give a “synopsis of the [Patriot’s] tours” they witnessed. Describe the synopsis briefly.

The synopsis of the Patriot tours as witnessed by Handler and Gable all followed basically the same pattern. The tours all emphasized the class distinctions which existed in 18th century Williamsburg, followed by the patriotic importance that Williamsburg played in shaping the “United States government.”[14] Also all the tours included an explanation, and emphasized the important role the commercial half of the Colonial Williamsburg foundation plays in supporting the ongoing educational efforts of Colonial Williamsburg.

3. Handler and Gable nicknamed the Patriot’s Tour the “invisible landscape tour”. Why?

The “invisible landscape tour” received this nickname from Handler and Gable because throughout the tour the interpreters would make a point of calling attention to items that Williamsburg made a great effort to disguise, such as modern items like TV antennae, etc…

What two explanations did they give for the guides’ emphasis on the invisible landscape? Is this a fair assessment?

Colonial Williamsburg provides two explanations for emphasizing the invisible landscape during the Patriot’s Tour. First by pointing out the invisible landscape Williamsburg is able to draw attention to the foundations efforts which are aimed at “absolute authenticity.”[15] Secondly by pointing out the invisible landscape Colonial Williamsburg is able to perform a type of damage control, and can emphasize that the work at Williamsburg is ongoing, hardly complete, but that Colonial Williamsburg is making an honest effort at fulfilling its mission. The assessment that Colonial Williamsburg gives to visitors regarding its efforts at maintaining a semblance of authenticity, and of fulfilling its mimetic mission may be disingenuous. The truth may lie closer to the fact that the obvious changes which differ from the true colonial Williamsburg time period may have more to do with keeping a steady stream of 21st century visitors comfortable, coming, and spending money.

4. Handler and Gable asked interviewees why history changes. What two responses were most common?

When asked why history changes, the two most common answers which came from interviewees were because “new facts are found”[16], and because “the outlooks and interests of the people who write it”[17] result in change.

5. What is the “constructionist theory”?

The “constructionist theory” argues that “history is more than the sum of the available facts…”[18], that history is also a viewpoint from the historians who are presenting it.

6. What is the “realist” or “objectivist” theory?

The realist or objectionist theory for interpreting history stands in direct opposition to the constructionist theory. Realist or objectivist theory relies entirely on the “steady discovery and organization of facts.”[19] Realists believe that by accumulating more and more historic facts and organizing them, they are able to present a depiction of history which more closing resembles the realty of the past.

7. “When people at Colonial Williamsburg drew on th[e] constructionist model [of history], they identified four major paradigms that have guided the museum’s work from its inception to the present”. What were these four? Describe each of them briefly.

The four paradigms that have guided the museum’s work are “the ‘Colonial Revival’ of the 1930’s, the ‘Cold War’ or ‘Patriotic’ paradigm of the 1950’s, the ‘Six Appeals’ of the 1960’s, and the ‘Social History’ paradigm of the 1980’s.

The ‘Colonial Revival’ paradigm tended to focus on the symbolism of democracy which included responsible leadership, self- government, individual liberties, and opportunity. It was the Colonial Williamsburg foundations goal to reflect these democratic values through a range of programs at Colonial Williamsburg.

The Cold War’ or ‘Patriotic’ paradigm of the 1950’s of Colonial Williamsburg took on a focus which emphasized a patriotic fervor through programs and events. These events emphasized topics such as human rights, political liberties, and social justice which were popular through the mid-1960’s.

The ‘Six Appeals’ paradigm of the 1960’s were a series of six programs which aimed to  offer “many things to many people”[20], by creating six individual departments within Colonial Williamsburg that would focus on architecture, English and American furniture, gardens, archaeology, and handicraft programs, and the events of the Revolutionary era.

The fourth and last paradigm was known as the ‘Social History’ paradigm of the 1980’s. The ‘Social History’ paradigm sought to take Colonial Williamsburg beyond “political history [and] to consider the social and economic context of the Revolutionary period. They [the Colonial Williamsburg foundation] envisioned a museum that would be explicit about the structure of society…”[21] especially in regard to relations of power and authority.

8. What three themes did the Curriculum Committee of 1977 emphasize?

The three themes that the Curriculum Committee emphasized were “Choosing Revolution, Becoming American’s, and the New Consumers”[22]

9. What do Handler and Gable mean when they say that, in the minds of the social historians, “[t]he museum as a laboratory . . . would teach social scientific analysis rather than ideology”?

When Handler and Gable discuss “museum as a laboratory…would teach social scientific analysis rather than ideology” they are referring to helping the audience of Williamsburg to tap into their own critical thinking skills so that they may better understand the logic behind decisions which were made in the past, as opposed to trying to apply modern situational logic to a past event.

10. What do Handler and Gable mean when they say that “social science – or science in general can itself be considered an ideology”?

When Handler and Gable say that “social science or science in general can itself be considered an ideology”, what they are referring to is the fact that social scientists follow a regime which focuses on linking different disciplines such as economics, political science, and sociology together in the belief that it will advance society. This belief or ideology as Handler and Gable refer to can lead to helping people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good.

 How did the new “rhetoric of laboratories, experiments, and the progress of research, fit easily into an ethos that had been part of Colonial Williamsburg’s culture from the beginning”?

Social science had not truly been a part of the Colonial Williamsburg ethos until the Longsworth regime. It was during the Longsworth regime that research began to go beyond political history and “to consider the social and economic context of the events of the revolutionary period.”[23]

11. Describe the second theory of history. What is Progressive Realism or Mimesis?

Progressive Realism or Mimesis is an approach to history which focuses on history being a progressive process. This progressive process is one that evolves and changes as more information is discovered allowing a truth to emerge about past events that is now more accurate,

12. What two metaphors do Handler and Gable find to explain this type of history?

The two metaphors that handler and Gable use to describe Progressive Realism are “the past [being] seen as a shattered object whose surviving pieces must be put back together”[24] and two “to make the past come alive”[25] by adding details that help recreate a bygone time.

13. What do Handler and Gable find ironic about this approach?

 What Handler and Gable find so ironic about the Progressive Realism approach used at Colonial Williamsburg is that it is entirely subject interpretation, and is applied in too much of a piece meal fashion. Consequently changes which are occurring at Williamsburg, such as with garden displays and architecture, when applied in a piece meal fashion tend to blend too easily with erroneous history. Consequently the application of piece meal changes to an exhibit for instance, can lead to overlooking the overall interpretation of an entire exhibit.

14. How does the “rhetoric of mimetic realism mesh” with the “constructionist theory” that Handler and Gable described earlier (see and read carefully the last paragraph on page?

History according to the constructionist theory is more than just the summation of facts but the interpretation of the historian who is presenting the history. Consequently mimetic realism meshes well past paradigms at Williamsburg, erroneous or not because it is often detail oriented and can overlook the overall interpretation of an entire exhibit.

15. Handler and Gable say that “mimetic realism has built into it an assertion of its superiority, as a theory of why history changes, over constructionist versions of history making”. How is this “built in”? Or, simply explain the last paragraph on page.

Advocates of mimetic realism argue that history changes only as a result of the discovery of new facts, and as such it is superior in its approach to history than the constructionist theorist approach which relies upon the interpretive argument of the historian. Mimetic realism begins with a historical baseline that does not change until a new discovery can alter that baseline, and it is this reasoning that mimetic realist’s cite as being the basis for their superior approach to history.

Chapter VII: New Challenges

1. What place did African Americans have in this new social history approach?

In order to convey a clearer understanding of what live was actually like for average people in Colonial Williamsburg, the Williamsburg foundation embarked upon a new social history approach which included African Americans in much greater numbers within the tour program. Research had shown that African Americans had developed a “culture which was independent of their masters”[26], and prior to 1979 this history was not depicted accurately .Beginning in 1979 however in an effort to recreate authenticity at least “50 percent of the interpreters needed to be black, and an organized effort was undertaken which included black interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg in a proportion that was indicative of their relationship to the white populace

2. Describe the “Black History Program” and “Other Half Tour”

The Black History Program which began in 1985 under the direction of Rex Ellis focused on the areas of Williamsburg where blacks lived and work. In particular the program focused on the parts of town such as kitchens, and stables where blacks spent the majority of their lives.

The “Other Half Tour” was a two hour walking tour which explored the lives of Colonial Williamsburg’s black population by focusing on the passage from Africa, living conditions, religion and music.

3. How did Williamsburg work to present “African American life in the countryside”?

In 1989 Colonial Williamsburg sought to recreate African American life in the country at Carter’s Grove Plantation. To achieve authenticity archaeological excavations coupled with research was used to recreate buildings, and what plantation slave’s lives were like. Research had shown that the lives of slaves who lived in the country differed considerably from those who lived in town.

4. What about Women’s History? How had it been portrayed in the mid-century?

Women’s history at Colonial Williamsburg was generally depicted during the mid-twentieth century as that of either “the genteel colonial”[27], or that of “the stereotypical ‘mammy.’”[28] Following a conscience effort in 1981 aimed at a more accurate depiction of 18th century colonial life for women, the “According to the Ladies” tour opened which provided visitors a look at the many varied lives of women during this time period.

5. After praising Williamsburg for the advances it made in African American and Women’s History, Handler and Gable redirect themselves. What is the “BUT,” of this story?

The exception that Handler and Gable take with Colonial Williamsburg regarding the historical depictions of both African Americans and women is that in both cases these two groups are depicted “primarily as shadowy background figures rather than full-fledged actors on the historical scene.”[29]

6. Thirteen years after the African American interpretation program began, how did it stand?

Thirteen years after the African American interpretation program began, the number of African American interpreters stood at only fifteen which was far short of authentically representing the African American population which in the 18th century was at 52 percent. However the program was a major improvement over the previous depictions of African American life in Colonial Williamsburg, and furthermore the changes at Williamsburg also began to influence how African Americans were depicted at other historic sites.

7. How was the issue of a “mock slave auction” handled?

In 1994, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of the African American Department Christy S. Coleman organized a mock slave auction reenactment aimed at educating visitors about this important part of African American history. Christy argued that since slavery equated to racism, it was vitally important that visitors understood some of the pain and humiliation that this ordeal involved. According to Jack Gravely of the Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Colonial Williamsburg succeeded in a “presentation that was passionate, moving, and educational”[30] and the Colonial Williamsburg foundation was able to deflect much of the initial controversy that was leveled at it.

8. What did Ada Louise Huxtable say about Williamsburg in 1997 and what do Handler and Gable think of her criticism?

Ada Louise Huxtable in her book Unreal America argues that Colonial Williamsburg is basically an American invention which is essentially a Disneyland type fantasy. Handler and Gable believe her criticism is basically one-sided and applicable only to the architectural aspect of Williamsburg. Even so, Handler and Gable would argue that Huxtable fails to give Williamsburg due credit for their attempts at historic recreation and although some recreations are in fact flawed on some degree, it is still unfair to compare Colonial Williamsburg to Disneyland.

9. What role did the Williamsburg Institute fill?

The Williamsburg Institute was created in 1997 as a means to counter Colonial Williamsburg’s theme park identity issues. In order to accomplish this task the Williamsburg Institute began offering programs to the public aimed at encouraging “visitors to learn more about eighteenth century life…”[31], thereby strengthening their image as a institute geared toward educating the public.

10. What did Peter Feuerheard write about Williamsburg’s effort to portray slavery in 1999?

Peter Feuerheard wrote that the Williamsburg foundation deserves credit “for challenging its visitors and raising questions, thus transcending the Disneyfication of history”[32]

11. Handler and Gable give their final examination of African American history at Williamsburg. What was the situation there by the turn of the century, and what did they think about it?

The African American program at Colonial Williamsburg at the turn of the twentieth century had encountered some internal problems, such as the dissolution of the Department of African American Interpretations and Presentations in 1997. This change which resulted from a reorganization effort had a decidedly negative effect on the black interpreters who felt that their collective voice was no longer being taken into consideration. Overall though by the end of the millennium Handler and Gable believe that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as a museum has made great strides in providing the public a more balanced portrait of African American history.

12. What is the point of the Epilogue?

The point of the epilogue is to summarize the strides that Colonial Williamsburg has made since its inception, and the challenges it now faces. As an institution whose mission it is to “presenting the past effectively and honestly”[33], Colonial Williamsburg still faces many hurdles. Notable amongst these hurdles, is how to continue “to walk a fine line in its historical presentations”[34] in such a way that they will meet there goal of educating the public, while at the same time not alienating them. Also the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation still must “confront questions of how to adequately represent the lives of African Americans, women, and laborers…”[35] who comprised the largest population of Colonial Williamsburg. Finally and probably most importantly the foundation must continue navigate the waters of promotion in a highly competitive market, while maintaining its mission of educating the public as a social history museum.




Handler, Richard, and Eric Gable. The New History in an Old Museum. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.


[1] Richard Handler and Eric Gable. The New History in an Old Museum. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 4

[2] Ibid

[3] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 4

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, 5

[7] Stephen J. Fjellman. Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992) pp. 35-63 quoted in Richard Handler and Eric Gable. The New History in an Old Museum. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 5

[8] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 7

[9] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 7

[10] Ibid, 14

[11] Ibid, 19

[12] Ibid

[13] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 50

[14] Ibid, 53

[15] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 58

[16] Ibid, 59

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 60

[20] Ibid, 66

[21] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 66

[22] Ibid, 67

[23] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 66

[24] Ibid, 70

[25] Ibid, 71

[26] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 150

[27] Ibid, 159

[28] Ibid

[29] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 159

[30] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 164

[31] Ibid, 168

[32] Ibid

[33] Handler and Gable. The New History in an Old Museum, 173

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid, 176

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