Coffee and arsenic

Handler and Gable’s mentions of George Wythe struck me as vaguely curious, but my hindbrain didn’t make itself clearly heard until after Lydia Broadnax’s name came up.

A couple years ago I read I Am Murdered, which is constructed as a somewhat bloated procedural, with a healthy dash of City Confidential. Chadwick examines the death of George Wythe (and Michael Brown), a bungled medical examination, an impoverished nephew with a motive for murder, the legal system that disallowed key testimony from a black woman (Broadnax), and an acquittal deemed scandalous.

Very sexy. But the Wythe-related controversies of Colonial Williamsburg* didn’t deal with his death or the trial. They were issues of racial representation (the “good” slaveholder, whose slaves were more like complaining employees than chattle) and sex-sexiness (the suggestion that Wythe and Broadnax were lovers, and Brown possibly their son). Granted, Colonial Williamsburg is Colonial Williamsburg, not the George Wythe Experience, and he died in Richmond.

But…part of the appeal of history is that we know how (some of it) turns out. We have the luxury of looking back, seeing connections and repercussions perhaps unknown to participants. We can describe the arc of a life (a man’s, a social movement’s, a nation’s). To eschew interpretations not based upon a certain type of documentary evidence is one thing, placing problematic limitations upon the histories which are presented. To ignore documented facts that do not have a direct bearing upon a small geographic area during a narrow window of time…seems like a pointlessly wasted opportunity, a prioritization of “things” over “people” that would make more sense if Colonial Williamsburg were not populated by costumed artisans and guides presenting Christmastime reenactments.

* At least insofar as they made it into this book. I’ve never been to Colonial Williamsburg, so I can’t speak to their actual, current handling of Wythe—or any other topic, for that matter.

Weekly readings: what is a museum?

Bennett traces the history of Modern Western museums, with particular emphasis upon the way in which Enlightenment thinking transformed them from clubhouses wherein elites conversed about art and into hierarchical educational institutions that sought to improve the lower classes. “Visual competence” was required to properly consume art.

The ethnography of Colonial Williamsburg reveals an institution which places much emphasis upon material culture and documented facts. The hierarchical museum model is very much in evidence behind the scenes (interpreters primed, via training materials, to produce a certain type of interpretation) as well as in public-facing programming.

Gordon points out that “museum” has a broader meaning than the pillared institutions that leap to mind (and are the focus of most studies). She explores smaller exhibits, curated for diverse reasons. If Bennett focused on top-down trends, Gordon is very much in the bottom-up camp. The “visual competence” of sports bar patrons is a non-issue, not least because the informal setting is rarely parsed as an exhibit space.

Witcomb explicitly ties her work to Bennett’s, but views governmental deployment of museums as economic as well as cultural: their focus upon material objects encourages visitors to embrace capitalism. It’s a disconcerting thought, targeting cultural assumptions that can easily go unnoticed. Even more radical is her discussion of museums’ information-dissemination superseding the physical repository function in the digital age. That would be a truly revolutionary change…except insofar as it would create a new marginalized class in need of education, refinement, and saving. “Digital competence,” rather than “visual competence,” would divide the museum-going public.


In the third chapter of The New History in an Old Museum there was discussion of tour guides’ presentation of the two halves of Colonial Williamsburg (the foundation and the for-profit side), a corporate and PR schizophrenia that provided the authors interesting fodder. It’s telling, beyond the borders of Colonial Williamsburg, that emphasis was placed on the fact that the foundation was supported by private money rather than the government. On the one hand, yes, good to assure the public that a not-for-profit venture isn’t being used to siphon public monies into the coffer of a privately owned business. But on the other hand, it de-emphasizes the importance of an educational mission and the role of government. It would be somehow reproachable to have government underwriting an institution with an educational mission, a waste of taxpayers’ money. Only a private corporation—and a very successful one at that—could (or should) be willing to sink money into such an effort.

By these metrics, the public is entitled to see that their tax money is unspent, not that it is well spent. Leaving aside the personal priorities that dictate what an individual considers “good” or “bad” public spending, it’s still a curious effect. In a capitalistic society, which in so many ways offers incentives for individuals to invest their money (and disincentives for saving*), there’s a certain degree of cognitive dissonance to see the assumption that government investment will be seen as a negative.

* Cf. the latest round of “historically low” mortgages rates and the uninspiring rates offered for CDs.