By Ben Swenson
Meet the Curator/Conservator
Colonial Williamsburg’s museums display some of the world’s finest examples of American art and material culture. Because of space constraints, however, the descriptive labels that accompany exhibits can’t be made large enough to thoroughly explain the history and significance of individual pieces.
That’s why a special tour at Colonial Williamsburg’s art museums, Meet the Curator/Conservator, is a good way to supplement a stroll through the galleries. “When you’re led by one of the staff members through the museum, you learn the background that brings these objects to life,” said Ron Hurst, chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation, and museums. “It’s those stories that really speak to people.”
Guests may notice the exquisite detail in Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of John Custis Wilson, for instance, but would also learn during Meet the Curator/Conservator that Peale wrote in his diary about his encounter with Wilson.
“Peale was charmed by Wilson and his wife, Peggy, and recorded that he painted both of their portraits, and one of their son, all during a two-week visit to the Wilsons’ plantation in rural Somerset County, Maryland,” Hurst says.
Behind-the-Scenes at Bruton Heights
You may not know about the Bruton Heights Education Center, even though the complex is a short walk from the Revolutionary City.
In the 1990s, Colonial Williamsburg renovated the once-segregated Bruton Heights School, giving new life to a former fixture in the local African-American community. Hallways where children’s voices once echoed now lead to production studios that broadcast the Emmy Award-winning Electronic Field Trip Series around the globe.
Across campus, two modern structures now stand in what was the schoolyard decades ago. The DeWitt Wallace Collections and Conservation Building is home to nine laboratories devoted to the preservation and care of priceless artifacts. The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library holds tens of thousands of volumes, photographs and manuscripts, many of which are found nowhere else. Guests who take the Behind-the-Scenes Tour at Bruton Heights get an inside look at all these state-of-the-art facilities that support the operations mission of a modern living history museum.
Rubbish, Treasures & Colonial Life, The Archaeology Labs
Colonial Williamsburg’s Archaeological Collections is home to millions of artifacts, including ceramics, glass, metalwork, stone and much more.
“People think that archaeologists often have Indiana Jones-like ‘Aha!’ moments where they dig up a rare artifact that solves a mystery,” says Kelly Ladd-Kostro, associate curator of Archaeological Collections. “In reality, discoveries in the field are just the beginning.”
What follows is a weeks-long journey of preservation, study and cataloguing, during which archaeologists and conservators tease from their finds the truths they reveal about history. Rubbish, Treasures & Colonial Life, a Tour of the Archaeological Laboratories takes guests behind the scenes to have a look at the meticulous processing that occurs once artifacts leave the ground—techniques well known to Colonial Williamsburg staff who curate some 40 million objects from 80-plus years of archaeology.
Bits and Bridles
Not all living history walks on two legs.
Animals are as much a part of Colonial Williamsburg’s immersive experience as their human companions. Contemporary stables furnish these four-legged interpreters all the 21st century care they need to carry out their duties.
Bits and Bridles offers guests an up-close look at what’s required to get Colonial Williamsburg’s animals geared up for work in the historic area. Whether they are the rare breed Leicester Longwool sheep that graze behind homes and trade buildings or draft horses that draw carriages through the Revolutionary City, keeping all these animals happy and healthy is a top priority for the Coach and Livestock crew.
Behind the Field Musick
John Harbour is a volunteer who leads an exclusive access tour called Behind the Field Musick. Harbour was a founding member of the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes & Drums, the organization’s first fifer back in 1958.
“When you see the Fifes & Drums marching down Duke of Gloucester Street, you see musicians that look and sound good,” he says. “What you don’t see is their long history, or the hours of practice that go into their performances.”
Behind the Field Musick explores that background, offering a walk around the Fifes & Drums building. Here guests will see an exhibit chronicling the group’s 56-year history and peek in on one of the regular rehearsals before the young men and women march outside to fill the Revolutionary City with their award-winning martial music once more.