- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

Program creators at Colonial Williamsburg plan to stage street scuffles, public debates and maybe even an occasional, all-out brawl to attract tourists during the 2006 season.

Tim Andrews, a spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, describes the new programs as “living interpretations of historical events.”

“Street activity could range from putting people in jail to tussles between patriots and loyalists,” he said. “It also could be revealing glimpses into the intimate side of 18th-century life.”

Williamsburg was the 18th-century capital of Virginia, which was considered the most influential of the American colonies. The 301-acre Colonial Williamsburg now includes about 100 restored buildings and other sites — including churches, foundries, gardens, slave quarters and taverns.

Officials are making changes to increase attendance, which has fallen to a 40-year low, and they are not alone among historic sites in the region.

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum also have struggled with visitor attendance over recent years.

Officials with the institutions say the 2001 terrorist attacks have played a significant part in declines.

“Most of our drop after 9/11 came from school tour groups that were no longer allowed to come to D.C.,” said Melissa Wood, a spokeswoman for Mount Vernon, whose attendance has rebounded.

Organizers say another factor is that parents and children are simply losing interest in visiting historical sites.

“People on vacation don’t want to be lectured to,” said Jim Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon. “They want to see something, smell something, feel something. They don’t want to be bored.”

Colin Campbell, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, agrees.

“We’ve done quite a lot of in-depth research of the attitudes and interests of potential guests, and it’s perfectly clear the need for active engagement is at the top of the list of what they want,” he said.

Mr. Andrews said no final plan on the street re-enactments has been reached. But writer Carol Berkin thinks such changes are necessary and has said so since about 1980.

“We’ve been telling them to do that for many, many years,” said Miss Berkin, author of “Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence.” “They’ve already come a long way in addressing the effort to change the appeal of the place — from a place where you look at pretty, old things to a place where you can have an experience.”

Officials acknowledged the changes are primarily about increasing attendance but say larger issues are also at stake.

“I think it’s much more fundamental for us that we are educational and teach to the future [what] we learned from the past,” Mr. Campbell said.

The new programs at Williamsburg will also focus more on the role of blacks and women in 18th-century America — a topic that typically receives little attention.

“We are debunking the myth that the Founding Fathers were the only people who rebuilt America,” Mr. Andrews said. “The fact of the matter is that 51 percent was African Virginia, African American. The people who made America weren’t all named Jefferson, Henry and Washington.”

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