Podcasts help make history come alive

Thomas Jefferson isn’t about to start listening to an iPod, with telltale earbud wires dangling from beneath his three-cornered hat as he walks the streets of Colonial Williamsburg. But people far from the restored 18th-century capital of Virginia–including students and researchers–can use their portable audio players to hear costumed interpreter Bill Barker talk about portraying Jefferson or read such historical documents as the Declaration of Independence.

These are just a few examples from the growing library of educational, and historically accurate, downloadable audio files accessible free of charge by educators, students, and other visitors to the historical foundation’s ever-expanding web site.

Dale Van Eck, manager of educational partnerships for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, says many of the audio files, or podcasts–a series of recorded audio files that can be accessed via desktop or laptop computer or downloaded using Apple iTunes software and listened to by students on the go–“are right on target for use in the classroom.”

The world’s largest living history museum long has used modern media to share its stories with audiences far beyond its 301-acre Historic Area, dating back to before World War II when it produced an educational film for schools. Today, it has an extensive web site with photo slideshows, online exhibits, and interactive tours, and it offers “electronic field trips” for schools using live television broadcasts and the internet. Now, Colonial Williamsburg is creating free weekly audio programs that people can listen to on computers or portable players to find out more about those who work there, plying old trades and playing historical figures. The idea is to educate and, the staff members hope, inspire people to visit. “It’s just another way to get the message out from Colonial Williamsburg,” said Colin G. Campbell, president of the private, nonprofit Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which operates the museum. Robyn Eoff, Colonial Williamsburg’s internet director, came up with the idea for the podcasts as a new way to reach audiences. “History may be old, but its presentation doesn’t have to be,” Eoff said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. The podcasts might not immediately bring people to Colonial Williamsburg, she said, “but if they educate them about what happened in Williamsburg and about what Colonial Williamsburg offers now, then we hope that in the future they’ll make a visit.”

In the classroom, Van Eck said, educators can use the audio presentations–many of which are prepared by historians, professors, and other historical authorities–to supplement their lessons plans and add a new dimension to the classroom experience, whether it’s teaching a single unit on Colonial women, or developing entire units around the park and its historical significance.

While Colonial Williamsburg has been concentrating on the podcasts, a few months ago it also began offering audio tours, Eoff said. They can’t be downloaded ahead of time; instead, visitors rent machines to listen on site. Other historic sites and museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution, also have podcasts, although Colonial Williamsburg–which has been posting its podcasts for more than a year–might have been among the first, Eoff said. Among sites related to America’s independence, Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, has a collection of podcasts available on its web site, ranging from talks about restoration efforts there to the former president’s own words, such as his “rough draft” of the Declaration of Independence. For Civil War buffs, Richmond National Battlefield Park in Virginia recently made available a podcast with a historian narrating a 1.5-mile tour of the battle fought at Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862.

Eoff doesn’t know how many people are listening to Colonial Williamsburg’s podcasts. The museum’s web site has other audio besides podcasts, and the monthly download tally for all is 80,000 to 90,000, she said. Written transcripts also are available. The podcasts mainly consist of interviews conducted by former NBC News anchor and correspondent Lloyd Dobyns, who didn’t know what a podcast was when Eoff approached him. Dobyns recalled thinking as he learned more about them, “All that sounds like is a casual radio interview, and I know how to do casual radio interviews.” Dobyns has talked to costumed interpreters, chefs, tradesmen, musicians, historians, and curators about topics as varied as barrel-making, religious freedom, and slave life. He has picked up interesting tidbits along the way, such as finding out from a weaver that in the old days, purple dye was made from the inside of shells. Colonial Williamsburg eventually wants to take the podcasts a step further, Eoff said, and produce video podcasts, or vodcasts.


Colonial Williamsburg podcasts

Smithsonian podcasts

Monticello podcasts

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