29 September 2018

Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy at The Box, Plymouth


Today we have an exciting guest blog  from Jo Loosemore
Contemporary cooking pot, traditional design by 
Mashpee Aquinnah artist Nosapocket/Ramona Peters 
(photo courtesy of Smoke Sygnals)


2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. The history connects five nations over four centuries. It’s also a story with personal connections, cultural sensitivities and political ramifications.

Today more than 30 million people claim a connection to the ship and its passengers of 400 years ago. Our work at The Box, Plymouth[1] is an ambitious response to the anniversary and to the cultural opportunities it offers. It is also a recognition of the need to genuinely reflect on the English colonisation of America and its consequences.

Having made links with Plymouth400 (the organisation leading the commemoration in the US) and descendant family history societies across the Atlantic, we began to understand how crucial and complicated the Native American story is. It has been ignored, or marginalised, by traditional tellings over 400 years. There are exceptions to that - at Plimoth Plantation for instance, and academically of course, but the Anglo Separatist colonial narrative still dominates.

‘Pilgrims’ are powerful. They have shaped images and ideas of American national identity for centuries. But doesn’t the 21st century demand different voices as well? Anniversaries can applaud and acclaim, but they also offer the opportunity to acknowledge - appropriately. With an international partnership in place (US, UK, and The Netherlands), this commemoration allows a real re-appraisal of the past. As an English regional museum in the city the Mayflower left 400 years ago, we could have chosen to look at our own 1620 world. Instead, The Box in Plymouth (UK) committed to co-curate its exhibition (Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy) with Native Americans living in and around Plymouth (US) today.

With little experience of, or opportunity to work with, ‘source communities’ or the descendants of those people affected by our ancestors’ colonial ambitions[2], this was bold. Perhaps it was also naïve, yet it felt right. Researching earlier commemorations on both sides of the Atlantic suggested the challenges and the choices we had to make. We didn’t want to make the mistake of 1970, when the Wampanoag elder Wamsutta/Frank James’ commemorative speech was censored by the Anglo American organisers of the 350th anniversary in America. The action resulted in dismay, anger and protests from Native Americans and led to the first National Day of Mourning. 2020 will mark its 50th anniversary.

Understandably, the Wampanoag people have a difficult relationship with Mayflower history and its legacy. They are the People of the First Light, who have lived in the American eastern woodlands for 12,000 years. They were also subject to attack from European disease and capture by English adventurers. Yet they enabled the survival of the Mayflower’s colonists, before being subjected to decimation during King Philip’s War of 1676 and generations of repression. Today there are two Wampanoag Nations in Massachusetts - Mashpee and Aquinnah. Would they, could they, help us?

The National Maritime Museum made the first museological approaches. The Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth400 (US) made a film for the new Tudor/Jacobean seafaring exhibition. We needed and hoped for more - objects, images, and insights, which would enable us to tell a different story of 1620 and its impact. For us, this would be new, hard, but appropriate. We wanted to bring Wampanoag history, culture and life today to an English audience. We just weren’t quite sure how.

The first phone call didn’t go well. I outlined our ambitions for an exhibition which told an accurate and integrated story, but owing to more commemorative Mayflower collecting over the years, lacked a range of earlier relevant objects. They told me theirs were here - in English collections - the loot of wars and oppression. They tasked me with finding King Philip/Metacom’s wampum belt - for them, the most symbolic of all.

As a 20th century social/oral historian rather than an ethnographer, 400 years of conflict felt a heavy burden. History and collections are collisions. They damage and hurt, but they also prove connections over time and oceans.

Following months of questions and requests, the exchanges became answers and support. The Wampanoag Advisory Group recommended we commission Smoke Sygnals (Wampanoag history and communication specialists) to guide us. Steadily we agreed a scope of work ‘to develop a foundation of a shared history between our people’. They offered to give ‘attention to period correct artifacts’ in order to ‘bring a fresh, authentic perspective to your work’. After a few months, the mother and son team of Paula and Steven Peters were working with us on object selection, text, and imagery.

Paula Peters (Wampanoag Advisory Group), with historic wampum collections at the British Museum
 (photo c/o The Box, Plymouth)

There are cultural differences of course. Our Native American advisors are open to recreations and replicas, while we seek original items imbued, from our perspective perhaps, with time and truth.   

Smoke Sygnals have guided us through online collection catalogues, away from objects mis-labelled or misunderstood over time, and led us towards items which they value, appreciate and want to see us display.

This has meant showing the evidence of Wampanoag longevity – fishing weights and arrow-heads of an unwritten past, pre-contact, and powerful in their efficacy and durability. Together we have also chosen pieces of the early contact period (a wooden ladle with a bird design, an eel trap and a bow) which have sustained through time.

This took us to the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian and the objects held in Washington, but representing Native Americans across the country. There are 174 Wampanoag pieces listed in the catalogue. We have secured three, thanks to our working relationship with the Wampanoag Advisory Group. Generously, they supported our case and ambition for the exhibition.

‘We greatly appreciate the sincerity and dedication to developing authentic displays that reflect the story of colonization and beyond from the Wampanoag perspective.
We appreciate that our tribal knowledge and scholarly work has been consulted every step of the way, in a sense treating us as co-curators, and giving our recommendations the highest priority’.
Paula Peters, Smoke Sygnals and Plymouth400 Wampanoag Advisory Committee Member

New archaeological research in Plymouth, MA by the University of Massachusetts suggests a much closer connection between the Wampanoag people and early colonists. It seems there was a sharing of material culture, and 400 years on, our exhibition will reflect that co-existence. But what of the conflict? Colonisation was undeniably brutal and bloody. The 1676 war may have been the bloodiest on American soil, but it was preceded and followed by cruel cultural clashes.  
John Eliot Bible, 1661, the first Bible to 
be printed in America, from the collections of 
Exeter Cathedral Library 
(image courtesy of Exeter Cathedral Library)

Finding the material culture and the imagery of conflict has been challenging. It is also central to the story. For us, objects four centuries apart will help to illustrate oppression and persecution. The Eliot Bible of the 17th century and the full text of Wamsutta/Frank James’ speech of 1970 are evidence of a dark past overly due for illumination.

Our Wampanoag advisors have also asserted the story of their survivance[3]. The Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag Nations in Massachusetts have a population of 5000. Both tribal governments are enabling us to use their historic photographic collections, while supporting new photography projects as well. We are also pleased to be establishing new relationships with artists and craftspeople preserving and perpetuating their living legacy. One, Nosapocket/Ramona Peters, is already beginning Plymouth’s
first ever commission of Wampanoag contemporary art (see above).
Her piece will become part of the city’s permanent collections on
its arrival here in 2020. We are also aiming to commission a new
wampum belt as well.     


Paula Peters (Wampanoag Advisory Group) 
reading the Algonquian Eliot Bible, 1680-85, 
at the Foyle Special Collections Library,
 Kings College, London 
(photo courtesy of The Box, Plymouth)
Presenting the cultural history of a people, pre-contact, during colonial contact and with a living legacy, is difficult. It requires openness and understanding, tenacity and trust. American archaeologists and advisors (Plimoth Plantation, Pilgrim Hall Museum and the University of Massachusetts), and British curators and ethnographers (British Museum, Pitt Rivers and Bristol) have offered context. Sometimes they have also countered the content suggested by our Native American advisors. Together we have imagined an exhibition[4] informed by Wampanoag interests and supported by Anglo-American museums. We are committed to the partnership and to the co-curation it has enabled. We may get some things wrong, but hopefully we will get more things right. That is an important course to chart 400 years after the arrival of the Mayflower in Native America.



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[1] The Box, Plymouth is a multi-million pound redevelopment of the former Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Central Library building and St Luke’s Church. It will incorporate the collections of the Museum and Art Gallery with those of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, the South West Film and Television Archive, the South West Image Bank, the Local Studies Library and significant loans from the National Museum of the Royal Navy.  
[2] When The Box, Plymouth reopens in 2020, our world cultures collections will be shown in a permanent gallery called 100 Journeys, which acknowledges the city’s involvement in English colonisation across the world.
[3] A term used to describe Native American survival and succession. Gerald Vizenor’s (2008) Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence has a series of essays on the theme.
[4] Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy will open in 2020 and run for 18 months. Objects, images and ideas will explore early English attempts to colonise America, recognise conflict and coexistence with Native America, address the political and religious context for the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620, detail the lives of its passengers, and consider the cultural, demographic and personal legacies of the story.  


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