Saturday, February 24, 2024

Here’s how Jamestown Settlement is keeping history relevant 400 years later

The "From Africa to Virginia Theater" in the Jamestown Settlement Gallery will see the installation of three-dimensional panels that convey the inception and growth of slavery in Virginia after the arrival of the first Africans in 1619. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)
The “From Africa to Virginia Theater” in the Jamestown Settlement Gallery will see the installation of three-dimensional panels that convey the inception and growth of slavery in Virginia after the arrival of the first Africans in 1619. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

On the eve of the 400th anniversary of seminal events in the Jamestown colony, the gallery at Jamestown Settlement is undergoing renovations to tell the American story in a refreshing manner.

By next summer Jamestown Settlement’s gallery will offer more interactive exhibits, new artifacts and a new multimedia theater for guests to explore, according to a news release from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

The gallery refresh will cost $10.6 million, which came from a mix of state grants and private donations. The $2 million first phase of the refresh was completed in 2017 and saw the implementation of an interactive technology wall that provides museum guests the chance to study the languages and cultures of the English, Angolans and Native Americans who lived in the region.

Gov. Ralph Northam kicked off the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond Wednesday. The statewide commemoration marks the 400th anniversary of the first representative government in the new world, the arrival of the first Africans and the first large-scale influx of European women to North America.

For their part, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is “refreshing” their gallery in order to highlight the world-shaping events of 1619 and thereafter, according to a news release.

The refurbished gallery will host new touch-screen exhibits that are more immersive for guests, allowing them to witness and touch history in ways they can’t today.

It’s all part of an effort to make history more appealing and immersive in the age of Google, when people turn to the internet for instant information.

New touch-screen displays will allow guests to explore history at the own pace. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.)
New touch-screen displays will allow guests to explore history at the own pace. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

Peter Armstrong, senior director of museum operations and education for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, said guests now ask, “’What has this got to do with me?’ If I’m a 14-year-old school child going around Jamestown why should I care what happened 400 years ago?”

Curator Bly Straube said she hopes new exhibits and a new theater will deliver to visitors the effects the events of four centuries ago continue to have on the world today. By cutting down on the amount of text in the gallery guests will learn the same information in novel, exciting ways.

“If people try to read every single word as they go through, they’re absolutely fatigued by the time they get through a 30,000-foot gallery,” she said.

Instead of an abundance of text panels, guests will see new artifacts and interactive displays that explain their significance.

An authentic ducking chair, used to subjugate women who “spoke out of turn” by immersing them in water, Straube said, will be on display, as will an engraving from the period depicting one in use.

To explain the importance of tobacco and trade in colonial life, the skull of a man whom archaeologists know habitually smoked tobacco because of the pipe-shaped holes in his smile will be displayed alongside interactive exhibits.

While not pertaining to the events of 1619, Jamestown Settlement will also unveil “Rebellion Theater” by the end of spring 2019, Armstrong said. Inside, guests will be immersed in the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion – as the scene unfolds on the big screen guests will smell smoke and gunpowder and feel the heat from the burning colony.

Armstrong said a California production company was contracted for the filming and experts from Universal Studios provided the special effects. Straube said was on set to make sure each costume, prop and line of dialogue was historical accurate.

“We had so many actors they would send me down the row and say, ‘How do they look?’” Straube said. “I had to remove a peacock feather (from a hat) because that wouldn’t have been worn back then.”

The new exhibits will make use of research and information that has come to light since the gallery opened in 2007, for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. Archaeologists with the Jamestown Rediscovery Project continue to study the colony and those who lived there.

Much of their findings from the Angela Site of Jamestown Island, where the first Africans arrived and lived, will be implemented in its own section of the refreshed gallery, Straube said.

“Our audience is changing, and I think everybody recognizes that,” Straube said. “If museums want to stay relevant they have to change too, and present info in palatable ways. The stories are exciting and engaging but you can lose your audience if you don’t present it to them in a way they can absorb.”

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