Reflections on CW

The CW is in reference to Colonial Williamsburg, which granted I have not visited in many years, but I can still hold opinions!  Especially after reading Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s book entitled The New History in an Old Museum.  Over the course of this semester I have worked in conjunction with Professor Eric Gable, anthropology professor at UMW, for an Anthropology 491 (independent study) course focusing on the nature of museums.  This course doesn’t, however, touch on the same range of topics that say a historic preservation class would.  We aren’t so much interested in how to create an exhibit, but rather what are the effects of the created exhibit, what does it say about the world around it?  Every week I work through a book, typically with a question in mind given to me by Prof. Gable.  As I already mentioned, I was actually reading a book that he wrote and working, toying really, with the question “How ethnography works in studying museums, what does an ethnography offer?”  Here’s the thing, the authors I have read so far on Museology (Tony Bennett and Carol Duncan) do not take a strictly ethnographic approach (which needs some defining in a moment here), but rather these authors study the texts a museum already produced.  These are generalized messages and ignore the everyday status of a museum space.  First we have to ask why studying that museum space is important.  Is it not possible to just study the artifacts and plaques around the museum?  My answer to that is no, of course not.  Right, why?  The Museum exists as more than the pure collection of text written by and about it.  Gable’s choice of a detailed ethnography of Colonial Williamsburg (CW) produces a wealth of details that bring many of the conflicts and questions which both Bennett and Duncan seek answers.  The central question posed by Gable and Handler is whether or not the “social history” CW promotes so heavily is truly being carried out.  The ethnography, as a main technique for anthropology, grants the researcher a flexibility that pure library research lacks, the ability to interview and look at an exceedingly broad picture.  Gable in his opening to this work neatly draws out the initial stages of thinking as well as methods for his ethnographic research.  During the entire book, the authors make extensive use of actual quotes, as opposed to purely paraphrasing.  Quotes recorded from multiple interviews with employees add additional layers of details to the anthropological analysis of what occurs at CW.

In addressing how the ethnography works in studying museums, field research steps away from just studying the plaques, pamphlets and other works produced by the museum, and turns to the people within the museum itself, both workers and visitors.  Rather than focus mainly on architectural concerns, an ethnography seeks to understand how the people themselves make sense of the contradictory messages of commercialism and genuine desire to educate all visitors to CW.  Through the collection of interviews, the anthropologists start to use recurring thoughts or conflicts to create new questions dealing with the museum.  An ethnography, unlikely many forms of study, attempts to approach the research subject without bias or previous judgments.  Here is where ethnography tends to be problematic for those unfamiliar with the idea of fieldwork, ethnography’s questions are generally produced as you go, narrowing as you gain a strong understanding of the important details.  Gable is very open that they started with broad ideas about what they wanted to study.  The second question I need to address is what an ethnography brings to the table.  One of the final chapters of this book, “The Picket Fence” deals with a strike between a union and upper management that occurs during Handler and Gable’s two year period of field research.  The ethnographic line of thinking decides to take advantage of any shift in the field, because field research actively seeks out what matters to the research subjects.

The New History in an Old Museum covers a broad range of topics within the world of CW, but again its main interest lies in uncovering whether the rhetoric of the new social history truly exists within this museum or is it another “Republican Disneyland”?  The narrative fluidly moves from topic to topic, building upon the foundations of the organization that attempts to constantly deal with potential views held by the public towards the CW foundation.

But it’s four in the morning go check it out yourself!

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