The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has the largest craft
program of any historic site museum in America. Twenty
eighteenth-century shops are open throughout the year and
several additional crafts are done outside in the summer season.
Fifty-four masters, journeymen, and apprentice craftsmen, and
about an equal number of craft interpreters, are employed in
The success of the craft program as an educational tool in this
museum is due largely to the decision to staff the shops with
skilled craftsmen. This has given Colonial Williamsburg the
opportunity to recreate an aspect of eighteenth century life
beyond just the physical arrangements of buildings and objects.
Craftsmen are employed to practice their trades in authentically
furnished shops, using the same materials, tools, and techniques
used by eighteenth century craftsmen. The guidelines for
selecting these craftsmen are:
1. The craftsman should be highly skilled or capable of being
trained to a high degree of skill in the techniques of his
2. The craftsman should have an interest in the history and
tradition of his craft.
3. The craftsman should have teaching and public contact
4. The craftsman should have supervisory and business abilities.
A program of apprenticeship training for career employees now
exists in thirteen craft shops, and fifteen men and women are
now being trained. Many of the master craftsmen, and all but one
of the journeymen, received their training in Williamsburg.
The main purpose of Colonial Williamsburg's apprenticeship
programs is to provide craftsmen to staff the museum's shops.
Most of those who successfully complete their apprenticeship
become career employees of this foundation.
Another purpose of the program is the preservation of the skills
and techniques of the eighteenth century. The museum realized,
in the 1960s, that the preservation of a craft could be as
important as that of an object. Some of the crafts now practiced
in Williamsburg use technology which had to be rediscovered or
brought over from Europe.
Only by traditional apprenticeship can these crafts be protected
from modern technology.
The length of the apprenticeship varies from trade to trade and
is usually based on the achievement of a skill level rather then
on the amount of time worked. Many of the apprentices start out
with some previous experience, either from a hobby or some
formal education. An average apprenticeship might be from five
to six years, hot some skills require a longer training period.
Because the apprentice is working in front of visitors and thus
most spend as much as one-half of his time interpreting his
craft to them, the learning process is slower and more difficult
then it would be in a private shop. Even ten years of working in
a museum shop would not equal the craft experience a man
received in a six- or seven-year apprenticeship in the
eighteenth century, because the eighteenth-century apprentice
worked from daylight to dark, six days a week. A successful
apprentices today must love his work enough to put in many
additional hours of reading, study, and work in his home shop.
Working in front of the public also affects the apprenticeship
in other ways. The apprentice must be hospitable to his guests
no matter how hard he is struggling to learn a technique or
concept. He is often required to explain skills which he is just
beginning to master. Some potentially talented apprentices do
not have the special ability to communicate with the visitors,
and those apprentices cannot be employed in a museum shop.
The apprentice's work must sometimes he evaluated and corrected
while visitors are present. This shows the visitors how
apprenticeship works, but unless the master is tactful, it can
embarrass the apprentice. Both the apprentice and master must
learn to separate criticism of the apprentice's work from
criticism of his ability or personality.
An apprentice in a museum craft program must have a unique
combination of craft skill, teaching ability, and cordiality. A
candidate lacking in any of these areas will not succeed. In
this respect, a museum craft apprenticeship is more difficult
than one in a private shop, but in other respects it may be
There is usually less pressure to produce in a museum shop, so
more time can be spent by the master in instructing his
apprentice. An apprentice can take longer to learn a skill
because his income is not based on his production. The quality
of the finished object is more important than the speed at which
it is produced.
A person interested in learning an eighteenth century method or
technique must go to a museum shop where modern laborsaving
devices can be ignored. Some trades are kept alive only because
of museum craft programs.
Another advantage of working in the museum shop is that an
apprentice in the career employee program does not have to find
a job when his training ends. His future can be with the museum,
if he so chooses. Few private shops can offer this opportunity.
Finally, a museum craftsman does not have to market his products
through galleries and shows. The large number of visitors
usually provides an excellent market.
While all of the above information has been drawn from my own
experience with the Colonial Williamsburg Craft Department,
there are several other museums which have traditional craft
demonstrations. A few of these also offer apprenticeship
My personal assessment of the current state of apprenticeships
in the crafts is limited to the museum area. Only 36 apprentices
are now working in the 15 museums contacted. They are learning
sixteen different trades. I think those figures present
graphically the poor state of the craft apprenticeship programs
of these museums.*
Only Colonial Williamsburg and the Ohio Historical Center are
making an effort to train enough craftsmen to staff their own
shops. The other museums either hire skilled workers as needed,
or hire people who are put to work in front of the public with
almost no training. Because skilled craftsmen are rarely
available, the latter often become the only choice for these
The problem is usually a lack of money. Few museums feel they
can afford an apprenticeship program large enough to train
people for all the trades they want to show the public. I feel
that cutting expenses in the apprenticeship programs is false
economy, because it results in the lowering of the quality of
the visitor's experience, and this will eventually reduce income
Another problem can be finding a craftsman who actually knows
his trade well enough to train an apprentices and at the same
time work before the public himself. Craftsmen in some trades
are rare today, and they expect more salary than the museum is
able to pay.
Apprenticeship can he a viable alternative to formal education
if the length and quality of training is sufficient to actually
produce a skilled craftsman. Unfortunately, many programs fail
to meet this requirement.
The museums are partially to blame because some have shortened
their apprenticeships or lowered their standards of quality to
cut costs and encourage applicants. A complex craft cannot be
learned in a two- or even in a four-year program. A person
completing one of the shortened apprenticeships claims to be a
craftsman; this undermines the public image of the craft and
sours employers against hiring other apprentice craftsmen.
In some cases, social pressure has caused apprentices to demand
quick advancement to the title of journeyman. Since it only
takes four years to get a college degree, an apprenticeship of
six to eight years seems excessively long to many of today's
youth. Of course, becoming an apprentice in order to become a
journeyman is very much like going to college to get a degree
rather than to get an education.
Whatever the reason for it, serving an abbreviated
apprenticeship is not a viable alternative to formal education.
One of these programs could, however, be a good supplement to a
college degree in the same field.
Because many people fail to complete their apprenticeships, I
suggest that a person complete a four-year college program
before deciding whether or not to apprentice in a trade. The
college experience gives the individual time to mature and to
learn to relate to people. The formal education also provides
the student with skills to earn a living if he does not finish
the apprenticeship program. I feel that developing honesty and
professionalism should he a major concern in apprenticeship.
In the museum crafts it is very important for craftsmen to be
honest when talking to the visitors about what part of the work
they can actually do, and how their work compares to that done
in the historic period represented by the shop. The slightest
exaggeration will be discovered by a knowledgeable guest and
will undermine the credibility of the entire museum program.
The craftsman must also develop a professional attitude toward
his work--its value--and his fellow craftsmen. A professional
craftsman will not take on work below his standards, do work for
less than its value, or criticize another person's work for
personal advantage. I think it is the responsibility of the
master to set a good example and pass on a sense of honesty and
professionalism to his apprentices.
The most difficult barrier which confronts the apprenticeship
system is the lack of money. If we hope to hire top quality
candidates, we must be able to offer them wages during and after
their apprenticeship--wages which compare to what they could
earn in any other field. Love of the trade alone will not draw
the candidates with the aptitude and attitude that are necessary
for a museum to develop a craft program which will attract
To encourage and develop the apprenticeship system in America, I
think that educating both the public and the school systems
about the availability and the nature of existing programs would
be the first step. As a second step, I would work to improve the
professional image and financial rewards of the crafts, so that
young people would think about them when selecting a career.
Finally, I would work with existing state organizations to
expand industrial apprenticeship standards to cover professional
I believe a properly directed national program for craft
apprenticeships would benefit both craftsmen and prospective
apprentices. In addition to the preceding suggestions for
developing the nation's apprenticeship programs, I would like to
see a published critique and rating of existing apprenticeship
I think that some national organization should take the
initiative in establishing standards and definitions of just
what an apprenticeship is, so that short training programs or
internships will not be confused with an apprenticeship. It
should also separate craft and apprentice ships from art
* These figures are from 1978, the year of the conference at
which this paper was given. Economic conditions may have reduced
the number of working craftsmen in some museums since then.