New focus on core mission at Colonial Williamsburg

Despite the layoff of 71 employees and the restructuring of commercial operations announced by Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss on Thursday, the foundation continues to invest in its core historical education mission, with new and expanded programs in the Historic Area and the Arts Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

Builders are expected to begin work in July on a $40 million, 60,000-square-foot expansion of the museum complex, said Ronald L. Hurst, chief curator and vice-president for Collections, Conservation and Museums.

The new facility will give the nationally known decorative arts and folk art museums, whose 225,000 annual visitors rank behind only the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a streetfront presence for the first time since the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum opened inside the Publick Hospital of 1773 in the late 1980s.

That new visibility is expected to significantly enhance how the museums mesh with the Historic Area.

"The different experiences we offer in the museums and the Historic Area complement each other beautifully," Hurst said, "and together they offer our visitors some really important lessons about the history and culture of our country."

In addition to the museum expansion, the foundation is expected to break ground on a new $10 million, 20,000-square-foot archaeological collections building adjacent to the Historic Area next spring.

Funded by the late Forrest Mars Jr., the facility will not only provide a badly needed new space for CW's artifact collection, lab and archaeological research team but also enable visitors to see the conservators and researchers in action.

"We outgrew our old building in the 1990s," Hurst says, "and having a new facility where visitors will be able to watch and even wind through the lab gives us an attractive new experience to offer.

"Archaeology is very popular in our surveys. It's amazing how high it ranks with our visitors."

That popularity is one reason why CW's commitment to archaeology and architectural research will continue, says Ted Maris-Wolf, vice president for Education, Research and Historical Interpretation, describing the appeal of such hands-on programs as "Dig! Kids, Dirt and Discovery" and "Building Detectives."

Equally important is how continuing investigation has recently formed or reshaped such Historic Area landmarks as the Market House and Raleigh Tavern.

"Research is core to our identity, and it's the root of the integrity of our programming," Maris-Wolf said.

"It's not going to stop."

The foundation's efforts to enrich the experience of visitors to the Historic Area will intensify, too, beginning with a new campaign to ensure that all 300-odd interpreters receive the training required for professional certification by the National Interpreters Association.

No costumed interpreters lost their jobs as part of Thursday's restructuring, Maris-Wolf stressed, and that's because the foundation recognizes the critical role they play in making the Historic Area come alive.

"It's going to cost money to see that they're all certified — and it's money that will have to be raised," he added, underscoring the importance of the new initiative.

"But it's an investment we have to make in the skills and professionalism of our staff."

Similar attention will be given to the ongoing rejiggering of the historic trades program, which has added several new shops and relocated others to more prominent sites.

"There has been a renaissance for historic trades over the past two years," Maris-Wolf said, "and it's going to continue."

Additional growth is planned for the summer teacher program, which will bring in 450 teachers from across the country this year, dress them in period garb and send them out alongside the interpreters and tradesmen.

"History education is in crisis, and we have a national role to play in re-imagining how it should be taught," he said.

"We're aiming for 1,000 teachers next summer."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

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