A context for the making, using, and maintenance of replicas at Colonial Williamsburg

Chris Swan


In today’s age of social history interpretation in living history museums, the use of thematic story lines has steadily increased, while object-oriented interpretation in general is diminished. Curators and conservators constantly struggle to maintain historic houses with period objects in the face of thousands of visitors and dramatic storytellers. Because of this growing indifference to the objects themselves, the use of reproductions in historic areas is on the rise. We seem to be at a crossroads between using reproductions solely to support educational programming, and interpreting objects in a traditional museum setting.

Colonial Williamsburg is in the unique position not only to make period reproductions, but also to use, maintain, and interpret them, in some cases, alongside collections objects as an integral part of the visitor’s experience. One of our challenges as conservators lies in our ability to augment the interpretation of our cultural materials by our investigations into historical and material circumstances. Whether we view reproductions as essential to an educational mission and therefore valuable in themselves, or just theatrical props which squeeze time away from the real work of the collection, they are a reality in some of our historic houses, and as such, deserve our attention. In this context, the role of the conservator applies to reproductions and historic collections in similar ways. A conservator provides a thorough understanding not only of such things as period construction, materials, effects of aging and deterioration, but also safely carries out molding and casting when exact copies are required. Moreover, a conservator can offer a protocol for distinguishing these new objects, record design and construction details, and thereby establish baseline condition records.

This paper seeks to outline the current thinking and practice of making and using reproductions in such an institution, and how conservation impacts this effort on a daily basis. In the Department of Collections and Conservation, reproductions are routinely accessioned if they are deemed valuable, based on their initial cost, interpretive value, and on the original’s value in the collection. In fact, a long history of copying objects from the collection for sale to the general public is evident. The making of furniture in particular ranges from hand-made objects using period (reproduction) tools and techniques, to outside contracts for objects to fill gaps in historic house inventories, to objects manufactured by licensed companies for catalogue sales. Conservators are regularly charged to collaborate on the design, making, patination and subsequent maintenance of a variety of objects.

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2000 | Philadelphia | Volume 7