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Williamsburg Copes With Hard Times

As the world’s largest living-history museum, Colonial Williamsburg sets an example for others to follow. Now, with the recession affecting cultural institutions, big and small, the museum is demonstrating how to balance priorities.

With 600 buildings, encompassing 1,000 hotel rooms, 14 restaurants and 26 shops over its 300-acre site, Williamsburg is a complex operation. Over the past year, declining revenues from tickets, lodging, food service and merchandise sales prompted a reduction in staff. “We determined last February that we should start taking steps to ameliorate the pressures by not filling some positions,” says Colin Campbell, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “We stayed on track through the first half of the year. But since the middle of October, things began to get worse. It’s worrisome.”

All told, Williamsburg lost 280 workers—140 in job openings that went unfilled and 140 in fall layoffs. About one-fourth of the layoffs have been among the museum’s educational staff, and only one of the museum’s invaluable master tradesmen was lost. During the slow season this winter, the museum cut back on its food and lodging services, while maintaining its educational mission with about 15 programs per day.

Meanwhile, thanks to the kind of private and institutional support that not many institutions can muster, Williamsburg has made major progress in some areas. A $5 million private gift bankrolled the reconstruction of an 18th-century coffeehouse that began last December. Outside donations paid for a major outdoor exhibition of folk art on display through 2013. And a National Endowment for the Humanities grant will lead to five different 3-D Internet tours of “virtual Williamsburg.”

Overall, says Campbell, “we’re encouraged with where we’re at the moment.”

Glory Regiment Strides Again

It’s not clear if the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was ever officially called “colored,” although in the movie Glory and elsewhere the term was used to recognize the unit as the first to allow men of color to fight together for their country. Now, revived by the Massachusetts National Guard, the unit is simply the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment—no longer restricted to any racial, ethnic or cultural group, and no longer serving an infantry function. Instead, the 54th’s duties are almost entirely ceremonial, performing about 300 military funeral services per month— not to mention an appearance during Barack Obama’s inauguration. “The primary purpose of reactivating the regiment was to recognize the rich history of the organization,” says the 54th’s commander, Colonel Sterling MacLeod. “It just serendipitously happened after the first African American was elected president.”

Child of the Depression Soldiers On

Katherine McIntosh knows the shame of poverty. In Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo of the Great Depression, McIntosh and her sister hide their faces in the shoulders of their migrant mother, Florence Owens Thompson. McIntosh says her mother, who died in 1983, allowed Lange to take the 1936 picture to help people understand deprivation. McIntosh, now 77, told CNN that the image motivated her family. “We all worked hard and we all had good jobs,” she said. In this current economic crisis, she advises politicians to “think of the middle-class people.”

Museums Collect Obama Booty

Museum officials in Springfield, Ill., and Washington, D.C., didn’t wait for Election Day to start putting their dibs on Barack Obama campaign artifacts.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency started gathering stuff after Obama announced his candidacy in Springfield two years ago. Their booty includes the podium he used to make the announcement and invitations to the event, as well as signed copies of later speeches and campaign memorabilia.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture—part of the Smithsonian and years away from opening— contacted the Obama campaign last summer and plundered a campaign office in Virginia just after the election. “They had a big Dumpster, and they were scheduled to leave,” said Michele Gates Moresi, the museum’s curator of collections. Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Moresi and her colleagues took guidance from campaign workers, picking items to tell the life of the campaign and of the office itself. Notebooks, notes among staffers, campaign literature and artwork by children were among the material gathered, plus a sign directed at messy volunteers: “Obama’s not your mama— you have to clean up after yourself.”

Geologists Study Bloody Terrain

Limestone played a deadly role in the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. Two geologists at Radford University in Virginia, Robert Whisonant and Judy Ehlen, studied the 25 conflicts with highest casualties and found that six of them were fought on terrains where the highly erodible rock produced relatively flat—and extremely dangerous—stretches of open ground. The most dramatic example of this impact is Antietam, where the casualty rate per hour was five times greater in the limestone-heavy Miller Cornfield than around Burnside’s Bridge, which is dominated by other types of rock formations. More than 23,000 soldiers died at Antietam in 1862.

Historians Pore Over Newly Released Nixon and LBJ Tapes

At a time when former Vice President Dick Cheney wants all of the private discussions in the Bush administration to remain secret, juicy details about the Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon presidencies have become public. Newly released audio tapes reveal that LBJ, in a 1968 conversation with Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, believed those close to Nixon were committing treason by trying to keep the South Vietnamese away from peace negotiations until after the election. He also tried to block a plank in the Democratic platform calling for a Vietnam bombing halt and advised Hubert Humphrey to choose Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Japanese-American, as his running mate. In a 1972 tape, President Nixon tells National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that the press, the establishment and professors are all “the enemy.”

1930s Indian Artwork Unveiled

Lakota beadwork and other artifacts made for the 1935 World’s Fair in Brussels will be displayed at Denver’s Buffalo Bill Museum starting this spring. The works, used by tribal performers at the fair had been squirreled away in a Brussels basement. In Oklahoma City, an exhibit at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum presents an overview of Indian murals produced during the 1930s and 1940s by artists from various tribes in the Southwest.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here