The word on DoG Street is that the program changes at Colonial Williamsburg over the past few years have led to a decline in attendance. In fact, just the opposite is true. In 2014, after President Mitchell Reiss and his new team brought innovative program changes to CW, attendance rose after a seven-year decline.
For cultural institutions like Colonial Williamsburg, attendance is the key to survival, both from a business AND Core Mission perspective. Somehow people must be hooked, grabbed, drawn to Colonial Williamsburg. Times and tastes have changed and so must the experience. Our core mission hasn’t changed, but how we draw people to it must.
Colonial Williamsburg has introduced many new programs in an effort to draw families back to our historic streets. We have introduced new and innovative programming in the Historic Area – an archaeological dig for kids, new Nation Builders, ox cart rides, the Playbooth Theatre, starting a colonial musket range, opening the Liberty Lounge and embracing our military, and celebrating haunted Halloween on DoG Street. Many of these are very hands-on, a growing trend and need in engaging people at cultural institutions.
In addition, CW remains America’s greatest living history museum exactly because we’re telling America’s – and all Americans’ – enduring story.
Since President Reiss arrived in 2014, we’ve kicked off new programs to tell a more comprehensive American story. Much effort has gone into theatrical programming, such as “Journey to Redemption,” in which actor-interpreters share the challenges confronted in portrayals of the enslaved and slaveholders of 18th-century America. We have expanded the programing at the Randolph site that centers on the paradox of slavery and freedom during the Revolution. We have also worked hard to develop community partnerships with institutions such as the First Baptist Church to add depth and substance to the discussion of Williamsburg’s and America’s racial past.
As noted above, this effort, these new programs and the hard work of those who bring them to life, halted a seven-year decline in attendance. Most recently, the Virginia Gazette reported that CW’s year-over-year attendance is up by 10%.
Our society and its interests have changed. The expectations and needs for a meaningful experience are not what they were in the 1970s, 1980s, or even five years ago. We will continue to find and develop new ways to attract people to our one-of-a-kind historical experience and our Core Mission so we keep the upward momentum going.