History in Motion: Colonial Williamsburg

Persistent Identifier
Nikola Krstović (RS)
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Boundaries are always an interesting topic. In the framework of the current heritage buzz word decolonization, boundaries might also represent what is “colonised” in every cultural enterprise, or to be more specific, how and why some form of power obtruded its authority, and to what extent. Like almost all other museums, Colonial Williamsburg deals with the past. The past has its own boundaries that make the framework even more specific, to the period of early American history. Yet, CW’s mission is clear about being a dot in timeline – a bridge between a “chosen” past and future yet to be created.


The paper is a result of a month-long research project granted through the fellowship of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and EXARC.


If a re-enactment is well executed, thoughtful and connected with the real life experiences (...), the audience is inspired into a deeper thinking process, introspection and debate with others. But, obviously, there must be the connection to real life experiences, dilemmas, collective ethical values, personal stands and so on. If it is good it is never based in pathetic sympathy for characters.

There are excellent guides and publications about the Colonial Williamsburg’s Foundation and its development like the Official Guide: Colonial Williamsburg, published in 2017 or Colonial Williamsburg: The First 75 Years (2001) by Mary Miley Theobald and Williamsburg Before and After the Rebirth of Virginia’s Colonial Capital (1988) by George Humphrey Yetter. What is Colonial Williamsburg today? As every heritage enterprise, it has been changing, updating, and upgrading. Its spatial characteristics are represented perfectly on each museum guiding map as well as on the official web site’s (Colonial Williamsburg, 2018) interactive map. 

The historic area of Colonial Williamsburg is a dream come true for many, primarily for its founders W. A. R. Goodwin and J. D. Rockefeller, Jr. Even though the official name is the living history museum, it is a hybrid of open-air museum, eco-museum, and econo-museum. It embraces some of the principles of new and socio-museology, also supporting tourist development of the local community, generating national pride. Established on the principles of European open air museums like Skansen and Artur Hazelius’ revolutionary idea with the goal to preserve Swedish vernacular lifestyles of late 19th century, Colonial Williamsburg also goes along with later initiatives like Norks Folkmuseum and Maihaugen in Norway, Den Gamle By in Denmark, or Arnhem in the Netherlands (De Jong, 2014, pp.29-39). However, insisting on the living history concept (which became part of the official museum name), or interpretative models based on theatrical performances is what make clear distinction from European practices - or it did make up to recently.

When it comes to mental mapping of the biggest living history museum in the world things become much harder. One can get very fragmented sequences about the scope of issues that CW is dealing with if the visit is limited to only one or couple of days – it is like the teaser, or brief preview, or a book content with short abstracts of chapters. It is, of course, due to the size of the historic area. If there’s a chance to stay a bit longer, impressions would change and that change could be both for better and worse. If the “fourth dimension” (the passing of time, or museum’s history) is added, diverse experiments, attempts and efforts to develop the best calls for thinking and rethinking the place and history, society and phenomena intensity of changes are clearly noticeable. 

Sense and sensibility: 1994 Auction 

Many European open air-museums have avoided performances that could have made ‘bad’ publicity.  Salacious stories of local character, such as violence, drunkenness or adultery were not the subject of interpretations. Above all, “the rarest model was presenting real human suffering” (Matelic, 1988, p.79). The 1990’s brought changes, with the U.S.  Museum education plan in Colonial Williamsburg, developed in a radically new direction, dealing with comprehensive interpretations of the lives of woman, children, African-Americans, servants, slaves, etc. 

One that still stands in history of museology is the 1994 site-specific play “Auction” which was held on the staircases of Wetherburn’s Tavern historic building, and became the theatrical event that benchmarked Colonial Williamsburg’s living history programs (Krstovic, 2017, p.180). New documentation was available thanks to EXARC and CWF Fellowship program, and the most helpful staff from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library. “Auction” provoked serious debates on a national level, as well as protests on the event itself. Most of the two thousand people, according to Colonial Williamsburg News from October 13, 1994, watching the performance reacted positively. The estate sold at auction consisted of some land and four slaves: Sukey, carpenter Billy, Daniel and Lucy. Only their names were known, their back-story lacking detail.  The performance was based on a genuine historic auction, held to cover a former land-owner’s debts. The historical documents pertaining to the real event do not speak about everybody. A museum, however, has the power to accent facts differently and correct the mistakes. The whole “Auction” event reflected both the darker sides of the past and the quite gloomy contemporary reality of 1990s as well.

The general public reactions were divided: from those who supported the concept of reviewing one’s own past, to those who considered that the darkest aspects of national history cannot and must not be re-interpreted in such a way. Opponents, perhaps, disagreed that the purpose of the re-enactment was not only to focus on national history, but to generate discussion on human trafficking and new forms of slavery. The Washington Post joined the debate by publishing the article “Revived history or undying racism? Slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg sparked protests” (Jones, 1994, p. unavailable). Opinions perhaps then remain divided on the role of open-air museums can play in highlighting current social circumstances. However, following the example of the Colonial Williamsburg ‘auction’, many open-air museums in the U. S. and Europe began to engage with ethically challenging topics of heritage. 

Making connections: Observing CW from other contexts  

Immediately after the U.S. fellowship I travelled to Poland for another research project entitled East & W/R:est (again about boundaries). The first exhibition I visited in cultural capital of Poland, Krakow, was dedicated to Tadeusz Kosciuszko in the Historic City Museum. It was an intriguing continuation of the American revolutionary past. During 1776 Kosciuszko was in the U.S. fighting for American independence. He was a colonel of engineers and built the military fortifications at West Point. By the end of the war, Kosciuszko was made a brigadier general and received U.S. citizenship, along with a medal for his service to the Continental Army (History, 2018). 

But, something else, quite important for the expanded notion of Museum Off Boundaries research project, was in line with the rest of the story: Kosciuszko forcefully juxtaposed the idea of American independence to the injustice of slavery: “Before he [Kosciuszko] left the U.S. in 1798 for the second, and the last time, he wrote the will in which he asked its executor, Jefferson, to sell Kosciuszko’s American estate for buying a freedom of black slaves and funding their education. But after the Kosciuszko’s death Jefferson did not fulfil his friend’s wishes, pleading inability to act as executor due to age (77)” (Sense and Sensibility, 2017).  Even though the case reached Supreme Court for three times till 1856 none of the money was ever used for the purpose. The story about Kosciuszko’s will and Jefferson symbolise broader perspective about important narratives that Colonial Williamsburg is trying to deal with: history of institutional slavery and its interpretation in museum operations. 

Sensing issues, developing stories, walking on a thin line

The issue of institutional slavery remains a traumatic topic, yet there is a need to illuminate such corners of the past. Numerous programmes and events in the historic area try to depict how 52% of late 18th century Williamsburg’s population lived.  “Change is coming” or “Differences of opinions” (with Gowan Pamphlet), “What holds the future?”, “Faith, hope and love” some of the stories/voices in “My story, my voice” on Charlton’s stage or the Governor’s Palace stage, “To be seen as American” in the Hannage Auditorium of Decorative arts museum of CW, or just, regular constantly ongoing interpretative programs. Andrew M. Schocket (2015, p.105) noted: “CW’s interpretations are amalgamation between organicist and essentialist ones because the institution itself has many internal and external constituents, all with somewhat different demands and views.”

This statement could be true for each institution of culture worldwide. Yet, I believe this paradox should be brought to the public light and become part of the institution’s interpretation of itself. That is what bring museum performances to a cutting edge. This, as well as acknowledging that we don’t know all the answers, actually works in the reality of the museum environment, and that same reality (of contemporary influences and ideologies) should be publicly visible in museum functioning. It is also an additional explanation of (American in the case of CW) current societal forces, as well as those in the past. 

However, returning to telling the story of itself – Andrew M. Schocket continued in very similar route: “just as CW sells itself as recreating an authentic past, its own institutional past is still the part of place and people’s perception of it. In addition, marketing emails CW sent out in 2011 and 2012 featured pictures of African American couples or families, not in a montage of mostly white faces but as the principal images. That’s a big change. The museum is trying much harder than it used to, though with little success. Both in absolute numbers and compared to the overall visitor population the number of African American visitors has dropped, from about forty thousand in late 1990s to fewer than twenty thousand in 2012. Admittedly, recruiting African Americans to portray enslaved people has always been a difficult task, given the understandable reluctance to interpret a life of being shamed and degraded. But, it’s still the case that Williamsburg half-enslaved Revolutionary-era past is now bizarrely recreated by an institution in which the vast majority of the employees in twenty first century suits and eighteen century costumes are white and the majority of employees in uniforms (maintenance and grounds keeping crews and housekeeping in various CW hotel properties) are people of colour. Though reinterpreting the past, CW has not yet escaped it.” (Schocket, 2015, p.105)

Considering constant overlapping of past and present values and powers and influences on the very same place (museum space – both physical and virtual from one side and mental from the other) recalls the thinking of relevant connection of heritage and its interpretation. Paul Johnson commented that “The heritage component can be social, cultural political, artistic, architectural, industrial, scientific, botanic or some combination of these. The interpretation if it through performance can be radical or reactionary, open or closed, educational or artistic, participatory or pedagogic. The performance can be first or third person, scripted or improvised, on a stage or site-specific, fixed or promenade, open or closed, solo or ensemble, unique or recurring, flamboyant or subdued, devised or written, central to the interpretative strategies or peripheral to them.” (Johnson 2012, 53)

Colonial Williamsburg strives to ensure that its relevance is based in authenticity and unbiased research. But, here we come to question of authenticity (Stjernfelt 2009, 40-59)  and authority. The stories performed through living history concepts were told by the museum, i.e. the one who had the authority and “right” to tell for (or instead of) visitors in attempt to provoke reviewing of the value systems established in real life. Jan Vaessen (2008, p.28) was also aware of this problem, stressing that “we are at the beginning of this process, but slowly we are becoming aware of the fantastic opportunities”. Not underestimating contribution to research and documenting of the past realities, living history (with all its performing models) still remained an indication of the museum “right” to filter the truth. Additionally, in terms of museology, living history also represents relocation – regardless of whether we are talking about a thing, an object or a process, we are actually talking about the context torn from its original (some would use terms authentic or natural) environment. The time in the museum became condensed, the most interesting elements were emphasized, but the visitors could still have the impression that time is passing in its natural rhythm. However, many of the performed events actually never happened in history or they have not happened exactly like that. Thus, most of the theatrical performances were new creations directed as completely new forms of narrative in order to re-create the historical atmosphere – the goal was to transfer the message, the historically and socially accepted value.

Also, taking the role of educational centre and learning space about history just because history is less taught in schools is almost a utopic venture. Colonial Williamsburg is officially a historical museum, but the core of its undertakings is connected (or even based) in cultural anthropology and sociology of everyday life. This means that history is just a base for teaching (if this is a good word at all) about universal phenomena and their derivate. In terms of contemporary societies, and particularly American societies, it means phenomena that are (still) relevant in lives of people today – we could easily conclude that they are just transformed or mutated left-overs from what we call history or public memory or heritage. 

Dealing with real things & Production of heritage 

Displacement of interest from material artefacts to the everyday life (which is neither simple nor easily explainable phenomenon) during the early 1980s, certainly gave a strong boost to open-air museums’ missions and visions. Firstly, they had to transform themselves into places that are not only lost images of the past but also connected with the contemporary life. We are witnessing new challenges nowadays – museums need communities, local people and their memories, connections to real life, partners, dialogue – the museum is not an idyllic space disconnected from the real life, but vivid agora for discussion of contemporary social manifestations. The mission statement of J. D. Rockefeller, Jr. describes that position almost perfectly. That means that the museum space is a platform for producing (creating, making, reaffirming) heritage. Let’s recall Laurajane Smith (2012, p.73): “There is, however, no such a thing as heritage. Rather, heritage is a cultural performance that occurs at, and with, heritage sites and museum exhibitions. It is a process of remembering and forgetting, and while particular things or spaces may be used as tools in that remembering, it is not the thing or places that are themselves ’heritage’, it is the uses of these things are put to that make them ’heritage’. Heritage is a process or a performance, in which certain cultural and social meanings and values are identified, reaffirmed or rejected and should not be, though it often is, conflated with sites and places.” 

Colonial Williamsburg is mostly relying on living history concepts for the constant creating of heritage process. People are generally enjoying Jeffersons’ and Washingtons’ performers and performances, as well as those portraying Madison, Mason, or Lafayette. It was obvious on every stage visited during my month of research. Yet, the numbers of visitors that are not white and at least mid-category (class/income, age, education level) are in declination even though the programs dealing with, for instance, African-American heritage and history are definitely among the best in CW, examples being The perfect adornment and Journey to redemption which I will discuss further. 

If a re-enactment is well executed, thoughtful and connected with the real life experiences, like the two examples I mentioned above, the audience is inspired into a deeper thinking process, introspection and debate with others. But, obviously, there must be the connection to real life experiences, dilemmas, collective ethical values, personal stands and so on. If it is good it is never based in pathetic sympathy for characters.   

Realities instead of performances: A bit(e) of (Colonial) Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg is part of Williamsburg – there is no clear boundary, let alone one to be crossed more visibly, and locals use the historic area as a space for their everyday life activities and routines, including recreation, rest, meals, social activities and gatherings. The first observation of the link between the CW and locals regards the event dedicated to commemorating the 54th Anniversary of The March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom and the legendary speech of M. L. King “I have a dream”. There were many speakers, some more some less appealing, but altogether representing the wider Williamsburg community: police officers, Americans, tourist, museum, economy, and civil societies’ representatives. Among them was Mr. Stephen Seals who contributed his paper “Humanizing the Dehumanized” to the International Yearbook themed Unheard Voices (Seals, 2015, 20-23). It was particularly emotional when he spoke of his grandfather after Normandy disembarkation at the end of WWII when he hadn’t been allowed to use toilets due to segregation laws while Nazi imprisoned soldiers did. In few sentences victory showed its shameful side. The Gathering entitled “Love, Peace, Unity” really did depict common spirit of community about racism and the awful Charlottesville’s images that recently have shaken the globe. All of a sudden the first, and ten minutes after, the second group of white men ran almost through the central part of Commemoration. They were (only) jogging. That is the group that earns 75-250K a year, which is also the targeted group of CW. 

The second example was a day or two after the commemoration, at the nearby Merchant Square, on the west side of Colonial Williamsburg. It was an open-air concert where people could bring their own chair and a $5 donation. The music played at the concert was, paradoxically, Russian revolutionary music – it was almost like a rehearsal for the centennial celebration of October’s Revolution. Spectators were about a hundred of white older couples, eating chips and drinking mostly Coca-Cola or Ice-tea. The square was shaking in the rhythm of revolutionary trumpets. The following question seems as the only logic after two examples: does equality really mean something? Two centuries ago it referred exclusively to white and wealthy (heterosexual was inconceivable term) man. Today it refers mostly to the same group.   

Turning performance into realities: Journey to Redemption

What would happen if the most important element of any performing activity – directing – could be excluded? Or, at least, directing by museum professionals? Real life has no real impact on the museum, except when the museum “expertise” attributes the qualities of specific, unique and/or precious to the real life of past. However, an exception in the real life is the positive or negative excess, while in the museum-institution it is common, neutral, and only acceptable as such. The essential question is: how to reconcile the life itself, in which the only constant is change, and the museum-institution which only constant is tendency to eternal immutability?

The answer comes in the devised theatre, which is the form of collective creation – the methodology also considered as a progressive methodology in museums known as participation and co-creation. It is a method of theatre-making in which the script or performance score originates from collaborative, often improvisatory work by a performing ensemble. Going further the process of creation should consult (or include) the community members, thus their authentic needs, dilemmas and values. Even though Handler and Saxton (1988, p.249) believed that “re-enactment is by definition a mimetic doubling, a remaking of one’s own body as that of an imagined other“, things are a bit more complicated when we observe living history models thirty years after their still present ideas. If we want to be critical we might say that this form of learning produced diverse “reality effects” yet safely removed from the uncertainties and survival struggles. Shaped as the safe “mental” environment these “products” functioned as a commodity like any other. Indeed, notion of cultural commodity production might be associated to many of the CW programs – it is in service of producing heritage and its “selling”. It is almost the survival strategy of many museums – however, it does not exclude the quality. There are attempts in CW not just to deliver solutions, ready-made historical messages and “authentic” wisdom, but to provide environment for thinking and suggest authors’ and interpreters’ limits of knowledge and experience that could be improved and sophisticated further only through the interaction with audience. Some useful directions have been provided by Yvone Edwards-Ingram (2016, p.27): “You have to be patient; that is one particular skill you have to bring to this job. The guest is not necessarily right. This is a learning institution, and sometimes education can lead to friction.” It means creating and developing realistic characters by the skilled and knowledgeable interpreter not forgetting that both the character and interpreter were/are real humans. Shortly it means humanising the relation between the two. Practitioners of sensory cinema push this logic one step further, arguing the communication of pre-discursive, affective apprehension of the real itself as a form of knowledge. 

Why is the notion of pre-discursive thought important? According to Andrew Wigert (1981, p.3), “Everyday life is not at disposal to those who are living it, because they do not shape it in the theoretically-scientific or museum manner (or almost any other). Everyday life is a term which… needs to be constructed”. 

The fact is that one form of discourse in open-air museums (research and documenting) requires further reality construction – interpretation. The best example of simulacra, copy of non-existing original, is, according to Baudrillard, Disneyland’s “perfect model of intertwined simulations”. The same could apply for open-air museums – the history performed through living history methodologies actually is not traceable, so it exists only as a construct, illusion and it could be re-performed in millions of different ways and still resemble the “authentic” version that one believes to know.

Speaking of devised theatre, multi-vocality and democratic relations between interpreters themselves, and interpreters and audience, in general between past and present values, it is necessary to mention Journey to redemption performance. I cannot separate clearly whether the show is connected more with theatre or heritage. “Redemption” is not a formal theatre performance, and there is no classical script either. It is not about acting, yet it is all about it. It is actually difficult to explain what “Redemption” is, in sense of performance as much as it is difficult to explain the concept and proportions of the process that we name redemption in a real life. Quite interactively demanding (for and between actors on the stage) “Redemption” brings fantastic rhythm through choreography, dialogues and body language. Due to the flow of parallel narratives and their interweaving, there isn’t much time for thinking during the play – you have to give yourself over to the performance. The emotional and mental accents are perfectly positioned and hit the audience in the right moments. Also, maybe, the most important: six actors build twelve characters – six historical and six real: themselves. So, these are biographies as much as autobiographies, histories as well as confessions. Conversions from “self” as a character to self as a real person (also played) are so subtle that chronologies become intertwined.  The past becomes relevant as much as contemporaneity and values and meanings are not lost in the way. Journey to redemption is a drama play and art-performance, theatre and reality, the act of authorship and participation.  It also represents, it seems to me, Colonial Williamsburg on its qualitative peak in this moment – crossing the line (final statement of the show itself) and limits of museum performative interpretation.
The first half of the play deals with six characters, evoking brief sequences about researched persons from past and bravely deals with institutional slavery. There’s no narrative, no storyline, no constant and continual storytelling, but rather accents on the visual, and audio level. The characters are talking about their state of minds, thoughts, events, personal and social relations, beautifully interacting with each other, constantly and quickly shifting the position of a leading role. The audience has to follow fast changes, thinking about what is going on the stage in associations, almost as during the brief test of memory. 

Then the characters from the past are transformed to characters of interpreters nowadays – as mentioned before they are becoming themselves bringing forward their own dilemmas during the creation of the show as well as stands, opinions and emotional relations from their own private (off the stage) lives. Yet, the forms of interactions between the actors, pace and rhythm are staying the same. After the effective ending, the interpreters are becoming real persons in the interaction with the audience. It is the moment of liberated energy – audience is asking not only about the historical characters, but about the whole process. Past and present became one value and message; story of slavery became story of racism, classism and privileges. It was the most honest interaction with audience I have seen in CW– interaction where the audience were not inspired to talk about history, but about their ongoing lives.

Ending at the beginning

"We dare not forget that we are heirs of that first revolution", said John F. Kennedy. Following this Colonial Williamsburg is almost obliged to create new revolution in museum communication. And there are some attempts. They are coming as bottom-up initiatives. These types of changes are more efficient if we are talking about long term development, but only if the top management recognize them as a kind of a new strength and the developing platform: Journey to redemption  as well as What holds the future?, Faith, hope and love My story, my voice, To be seen as an American, Perfect Adornment, Secrets of midwives, Mr. Mason and Mrs. Washington’s widowhood conversation, and Aggy’s story are quite good examples. There is fresh potential in all of them, because they are about ordinary people, universal stories, fears, hopes, wishes and ambitions, knowledge, passions, prejudices, revelations. All of these define the idea of being human, microcosms to which politics, ideologies, revolutions, wars and freedoms can penetrate, pollute or ennoble, or, just do nothing at all. We still do believe undoubtedly that heritage (or collective memory) is part of history, or to be more precise - public history. But, heritage is just chronologically based in past, yet, again, the discourses, symbols metaphors, interpretations and values could be relevant only today. Or, we do not speak about heritage. So, the time is relative when it comes to heritage. 

That’s why heritage is not equal to history – histories are there no matter what, they are facts and their combinations, sometimes not revealed to us yet, or revealed completely false. Heritage is not there per se. We must agree about it and create it, sometimes even when we do not know historical facts, or when we have too many of them. Heritage reflects our sense of contemporary values, it provokes our current acts and thoughts, and it even determines decisions for future. What do we prefer: Slavery is part of American history or slavery is American heritage? When it (slavery) is buried (even) in (living) history, there are no many consequences, except some distant feel of shame about our “brutal ancestors”. It is excusable just because I don’t feel connected personally. For being sympathetic and full of understanding as the member of the privileged categories I could feel even awarded for being so open and tolerant. However, if we collectively inherited slavery (agreed to make it our heritage) than it means we have some responsibilities. Not just in sense of redemption because it still makes the imaginary anthropological difference between “us” and “them” – but in sense of building the platform for people becoming aware of others, of equality, of privileges, of the whole set of ideas that work only on paper, but not in the real world. That goes towards humanising the narrative. It is not about slavery if it is not about people, it is not about trades if it is not about people, it is not about declarations if it is not about people, it is not about freedom and constitutions if it is not about people. Nothing is just black or white, good or bad, plus and minus – it is about more profound understanding of human existence. In order to achieve this one must actually think about and research contemporaneity, not history. History is just one of the resources for heritage creation. Paradoxical about the usages of heritage is that it is the most valuable when we simply don’t need it anymore. It means it became part of our pre-discursive realities. Thus we just live it, not accumulate and treasure it.




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