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Colonial Williamsburg
Created and maintained by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Reviewed July 19–22, 2003.

John D. Rockefeller Jr., Colonial Williamsburg’s original benefactor, gave his creation the motto: “That the future may learn from the past.” This directive very much informs Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site—a thing that Rockefeller probably never imagined as an entryway to his open-air museum. The site invites users to “Explore the history of this nation and learn what it means to be American,” a somewhat more nationally specific goal than the organization’s motto, but it certainly accurately describes the site’s content, which reflects recent upsurges in patriotism and in popular interest in the founding period. The “Explore and Learn” section of the site (accessible from the home page) is the electronic window on Colonial Williamsburg.

Like Colonial Williamsburg itself, the “Explore and Learn” components draw upon scholarly investigation into the past but are not scholarly resources. Rather, and again much like the physical site, they introduce the public to eighteenth-century Anglo-America. A user can, for example, choose to “Meet the People”, “See the Places”, or “Experience the Life”. For the first category, the choices very much reflect a convergence between scholarly and popular interest in the past’s ordinary people, those who were not always at the center of the historical narrative. At the top of this list are African-Americans, followed by Colonial children, an indication that this site has many users who are schoolchildren; then there are the Geddys (a family of tradesmen), the Randolphs (members of the elite), the People of Williamsburg as a corporate entity, and then George Washington, Martha Washington, and other famous Virginians. The list neatly inverts the social hierarchy of eighteenth-century Williamsburg and introduces ordinary Americans to their counterparts in the past rather than telling them yet again about the great and the good.

How to Behave, Eighteenth-Century Style.

Biographical fact sheets, historical documents, and bibliographies accompany the individuals and groups on this list; the category of African-Americans, for example, includes Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of freedom for slaves who opposed the American rebels during the Revolution. An emphasis on material from the eighteenth century appears throughout the Web site; the “See the Places” section is illustrated mostly by images of buildings from the past, not contemporary photographs of these places.

The Web site is also structured for classroom use. The unit for Christmas under “Experience the Life” includes a lesson plan for a colonial Christmas. And there is an entire section for Teacher Resources. This too is packaged with national history in mind. “Education is essential to the continuation of our free democracy,” teachers are told, “and Colonial Williamsburg believes that history should be the very core of the education.” The site also includes electronic field trips, study programs for upper-level high school students and for continuing education, and special programs on archaeology and for families during the summertime. The site has many other resources, such as job listings, recipes, publications, information about booking visits, a rundown of Colonial Williamsburg’s history, descriptions of archaeological projects and of the fife and drum corps, and a connection to the gift shop. I would recommend the site to anyone seeking an introduction to the everyday life and history of the eighteenth-century colonies.

Joyce Chaplin
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts