WILLIAMSBURG — At just 4 years old, Ethan Rose is already something of a budding history enthusiast.
Last year, the preschooler from Washington, D.C., had an archaeology phase, and right now, his favorite “Revolutionary War superhero” is George Washington, who “has the curls,” Ethan explained, demonstrating with a motion near his shoulder. “And he’s got powder in his hair.”
During a recent family trip to the Historic Triangle, Ethan got to meet his superhero up close in Colonial Williamsburg, where history comes to life.
“He loves muskets and cannons,” said his dad, Ben Rose, as Ethan clambered on a recreated infantry cannon. “He’s all about the immersive.”
Living history museums such as Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown Settlement try to help people learn about the past through public history, which “describes the way we use history outside of the formal classroom or academic setting,” said Mariruth Leftwich, the senior director of museum operations for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
Public history puts audiences first, she said. And with a more dynamic approach to teaching history — such as putting visitors right in the center of the action with immersive spaces and living history — comes a more effective and deeper learning.
At Colonial Williamsburg, that means making history “usable and accessible,” said Peter Inker, the director of historical research for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
“Academia focuses on scholarly research and scholarly debate,” Inker said. “We try and form a hinge between them and the public experience of that history. So we take the scholarly research and we make that a little bit more accessible, and we mix it with different forms of accessing that history.
“It’s a multisensory history, what we do here.”
Enter George Washington
Costumed interpreters, such as Ron Carnegie, who portrays George Washington at Colonial Williamsburg, are tasked with helping bring history to life for visitors like Ethan and his dad. As Washington, Carnegie strikes a familiar figure in a tricorn hat and a long coat, even under the summertime sun.
“Everything we do is based very heavily on the work that academics do,” Carnegie said. “We can take the work that they do, the academic does, and we can bring it to life in a way that is often easier for a visitor to understand and get the lessons from. … When you’re doing it on the sort of level that we’re doing with public history, it makes it come alive in a way that anybody can understand.”
As Carnegie explained, using first-person interpretation can help make history and historical figures more three-dimensional for visitors, giving them the chance to relate to someone like George Washington as a person rather than as a character in a history book.
Seeing Washington in the flesh helps people recognize that historical characters were human, Carnegie said.
“They were people just like us. They had the same interests that we have, the same concerns. … That brings a dynamic to history that helps make it come alive.”
Every week, Carnegie spends time at Colonial Williamsburg’s Ewing Field, where the Historic Farming program makes its home under the shade of a replica of a 17th-century windmill. Dressed as Washington, who was a farmer as well as the nation’s first president, Carnegie lingers beside a large patch of crops and converses with visitors, many of whom are tasked by historic farmer Ed Schultz to pick up a hoe and get to work.
Casey and Krystal Goodman, with their 10-year-old son Karson and 7-year-old daughter Kelsey, recently got an unexpected chance to work the farm with Schultz, pulling up roots from the ground. The family, which was visiting from Oklahoma, were exploring the Historic Triangle for the first time.
“They like the things you can actually see, like the buildings and the battlefields,” Krystal Goodman said of her kids as they worked the earth under the full summer sun. “The more hands-on stuff.”
Over the years, the Snider family from Winchester has been a frequent visitor to Colonial Williamsburg. Debra Snider homeschools her children, 9-year-old Emma, 12-year-old Morgan and 17-year-old Madison, and she said Colonial Williamsburg has been an invaluable resource as she teaches history.
“It’s a great place for field trips,” she said. “It’s never the same trip.”
On their most recent visit, the family stopped on Duke of Gloucester Street to pet a pair of horses standing patiently by the fence in their pen.
Giving her kids a more hands-on experience and letting them step back in time to get a feel for how people in the 18th century lived has been crucial to their education, Snider said.
“It’s better than reading about it in a book,” she said. “It’s immersive. They’re enthralled with colonial times and revolutionary history. Being here makes you feel like a part of it.”
Finding the past
Inker described the education provided at Colonial Williamsburg as entry points or building blocks to help people discover history in a way that speaks to them.
“It really is about personal engagement and opening up what can sometimes be barriers to scholarly research. And I’m not saying it’s intentional barriers, but oftentimes, it’s just written in a way that it’s hard for people to understand,” Inker said. “What we do at Colonial Williamsburg is provide those multiple entry points to find out about the past and the stimulation for them to identify with the past, and then for an individual to find the past that speaks to them. And then, they can go away and discover what that is.”
For families like the Roses, the more hands-on learning history is, the better.
Throughout his week on the Peninsula, Ethan was able to hit all of the big sites. When the Roses visited Yorktown, he spent hours completing an educational booklet and “watering the plants,” he said, as he earned his Junior Ranger certificate and a patch, which he wore days later on his hat.
In Colonial Williamsburg, Ethan took in the musket demonstration and then joined the Shoulder Your Firelocks! program, learning about weapons handling and marching drills of 18th-century soldiers and wielding a wooden replica rifle nearly as tall as he was.
John Biegel and his sons, 9-year-old Grant and 7-year-old Nathan, also grabbed wooden rifles and joined in as Christopher Grieb, a military programs interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, worked visitors of all ages through their paces.
“March!” he called, urging the flagging lines to stay in formation as they wound their way around the sunny lawn beside the Powder Magazine on Duke of Gloucester Street.
The Biegels, who live in Springfield, were in town for five days along with mom Michelle Biegel and 4-year-old Madison.
During their trip, the Biegels also did the full Historic Triangle circuit, making a stop at Jamestown Settlement, where visitors can immerse themselves in the daily routines of the people who lived in 17th-century Jamestown, including English colonists, Virginia Indians and West Central Africans.
The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which operates Jamestown Settlement as well as the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, strives to meet visitors where they are, Leftwich said.
“We do that … by having a variety of ways that people can feel connected to history,” she said. “Whether that is through hands-on experiences in our living-history areas, engaging in conversation at programs, exhibitions that integrate popular culture, or providing opportunities for visitors to reflect and provide us insights to how they see history impact their lives today.”
Nearby Historic Jamestowne also gives a close-up look at history. There, at the first permanent English settlement in America, visitors can watch as archaeologists continue to reveal details about the original 1607 James Fort. Various programs at the site and at its archeology museum provide hands-on activities, such as the Ed Shed, where children can sort through artifacts from the excavation sites.
Nathan said one of the biggest highlights of the week was exploring Jamestown Settlement’s replica English ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, which visitors can board, walking the same narrow pathways merchant sailors walked in the early 1600s.
“The most important thing for us when it comes to research is that people understand what we’re doing has a fidelity to the past,” Inker said. “If we have a fidelity to the past, that means that we can tell everybody’s story. We’re not censoring or erasing anyone from the record.”
Plenty of people who visit the Historic Triangle are there because they love history. For Ben Rose, visiting Colonial Williamsburg was a bucket list item for him and a chance to be a kid again. But for others, it’s a chance to discover how history can matter to them in their 21st-century lives.
“We’re providing those entry points where they can then go explore,” Inker said. “And maybe then, they come back in a year and say, ‘I’ve been doing all this reading, and I want to find out about this thing now because I didn’t really get it then but now I get it.’”
With the nation’s 250th birthday approaching in 2026, organizations such as The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation are continuing to look for new ways to engage visitors.
In 2025, Colonial Williamsburg will open its new Colin G. and Nancy N. Campbell Archaeology Center, which will offer guests an interactive look into current archaeological projects as well as the millions of artifacts that make up the archaeological collection.
The building will be part of what will soon become a major visitor corridor to the Historic Area along South Nassau Street, along with the Williamsburg Bray School, opening in September 2024, and First Baptist Church and the Custis Square gardens, opening in fall 2026.
All three locations have been recent focuses of activity, with the 18th-century Bray School building, which housed one of the first Black schools in the United States, moving back to its historical site in February. The First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, first organized in 1776 by enslaved and free Black people and one of the nation’s oldest Black churches, is currently being rebuilt at its original site on Nassau Street. The Custis Square gardens will recreate 18th-century resident John Custis IV’s extensive ornamental garden.
Down the road, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation plans to “work with communities ahead of 2026 to reflect on the ideas of the American Revolution and what it means to both commemorate the events of 1776 and push us collectively towards the promises set out that remain ideals and not yet realities for many Americans,” Leftwich said.
“We hope to leverage our public history spaces for convening ideas, generating discussion and reflecting on the past in ways that create a relevance in the present.”
As for Ethan Rose, he’s not worried about how the 250th anniversary of the country will be celebrated, or what goes into the work done at Colonial Williamsburg. He just wants to catch the next Revolutionary War superhero in a wig.
Sian Wilkerson, 757-342-6616, email@example.com