Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Tag Archives: Ghosts

Alena Pirok’s The Spirit of Colonial Williamsburg.

I think the main thing this engaging first book does is explore the putatively irrational side of historical preservation and museum creation. We take for granted that there is something sane and logical in a desire to preserve past things. But if you tug a bit, the mask slips and something less narrowly rational comes into focus. In her dissertation, Pirok looked at how hauntings were foundational to elite Virginians’ creating their past, and as a consequence, were also central to the historical preservation projects they set in motion. The highest profile, most influential, and perhaps most successful of these was Colonial Williamsburg, so it makes sense that the book version of dissertation focuses on that museum. There are already two significant books that take this museum as their topic. One is Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s 1997 The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg which is an anthropological study of the museum’s educational and corporate culture. The other is Anders Greenspan’s 2009 history called Creating Colonial Williamsburg: The Restoration of Virginia’s Eighteenth-Century Capital which outlines the museum role as a political and cultural meaning maker. Pirok though goes in very different direction. Her’s is neither a straight history nor a critique. Instead, what Pirok does is explore the sort of tug-o-war Colonial Williamsburg’s planners felt between a project justification rooted in authenticity claims on the one hand, and the need to meet visitors’ desires for something rich and personal in their experiences on the other. Pirok labeled that missing dimension as “emotion,” a word she took from 1940s consultants hired by the museum to recommend a way to breathe life into a meticulous but sterile reconstruction. Emotion meant people, life, and activity. As Pirok showed, Rev Goodwin who started the whole project in the 1920s was a firm believer in ghosts–not metaphorical ones, but actual spirits of dead colonial people. His worry was that changes in the city threatened to disrupt the happy afterlife these specters enjoyed haunting their old homes and streets. Restoring the town to its colonial glory secured the ghosts future presence. The professional rebuilding of the town though distanced itself from something as silly as ghost stories. But it did so only to find that the ghosts had created real meaning and connection for locals and visitors, and once they were sort of written out of the story, there was nothing left facilitate the emotional connection that visitors wanted. The ghosts had to come back–and so they did, first in the form of plays, then in the form of first person interpreters, and finally in the form of ghost tours. The museum originally resisted these tours since they challenged the museum’s sense of self and left the project to private businesses. but as Pirok shows. the desire to reap the financial rewards of the popular tours led the museum to welcome ghosts back into the official fold. Her study is about a single museum, but Pirok has touched on something that has a varient at most other open-air and house museums. She is exploring the sentimental core of all historical connection and interaction. 

%d bloggers like this: