by Jo Loosemore, Content Lead for ‘Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy’

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.

Stone marker in Plymouth, MA, USA - Mayflower 400

Stone marker in Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA.

Today more than 30 million people claim a connection to the ship and its passengers. Our work at The Box, Plymouth is an ambitious response to the anniversary and to the cultural opportunities it offers. It’s 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 and how 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? 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 we’ve committed to co-curating our exhibition with Native Americans living in and around Plymouth, USA today.

With little experience of or opportunity to work with ‘source communities’ or the descendants of those people affected by our ancestors’ colonial ambitions, this was bold decision – yet it felt like the right thing to do.

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 European disease and capture by English adventurers. Yet they enabled the survival of the Mayflower’s colonists, before being decimated during King Philip’s War of 1676 and enduring generations of repression. Today there are two Wampanoag Nations in Massachusetts – Mashpee and Aquinnah. Would they, could they, help us?

Paula Peters (Wampanoag Advisory Group), with historic wampum collections at the British Museum for Mayflower 400

Paula Peters from the Wampanoag Advisory Group looking at historic wampum collections at the British Museum.

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 were hoping for more – objects, images, and insights that would help us tell a different story of 1620 and bring Wampanoag history and culture to an English audience.

The first phone call didn’t go well but 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 and 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 from the Wampanoag Advisory Group with a belt turtle from the British Museum's historic wampum collections for Mayflower 400

Paula Peters from the Wampanoag Advisory Group with a belt turtle from the British Museum’s historic wampum collections.

There are cultural differences of course. Our Native American advisors are open to recreations and replicas, while we seek original items. Throughout the process, Smoke Sygnals have guided us through online collection catalogues and led us towards items they value and want to see on display.

This has meant showing the evidence of Wampanoag longevity and pre-contact – objects from an unwritten past such as fishing weights and arrow-heads that have endured over time. Together we have also chosen pieces of the early contact period such as a wooden ladle with a bird design, an eel trap and a bow.

The journey has taken us to the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian and objects which are held in Washington but represent Native Americans across the country. There are 174 Wampanoag pieces listed in the catalogue and we have secured three for the exhibition.

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?Finding the material culture and the imagery for this has been challenging but it’s central to the story. The Eliot Bible of the 17th century and the full text of Wamsutta/Frank James’ speech of 1970, for example, are evidence of a dark past overly due for illumination.

Paula Peters from the Wampanoag Advisory Group reading the Algonquian Eliot Bible (1680-85) at the Foyle Special Collections Library, Kings College, London - Mayflower 400

Paula Peters from the Wampanoag Advisory Group reading the Algonquian Eliot Bible (1680-85) at the Foyle Special Collections Library, Kings College, London.

Our Wampanoag advisors have also asserted the story of their survivance. The Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag Nations in Massachusetts have a population of 5,000. Both tribal governments are enabling us to use their historic photographic collections, whilst also 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. We’ll have more to share on this in the coming days.

Presenting the cultural history of a people, pre-contact, during colonial contact and beyond is difficult. It requires openness and understanding, tenacity and trust. Fortunately, with the advisors, archaeologists, curators and ethnographers who have offered context and input, we are creating an exhibition informed by Wampanoag interests and supported by Anglo-American museums. We are committed to this partnership and the co-curation it’s enabling. We may get some things wrong, but hopefully we’ll get more things right. It’s an important course to chart 400 years after the Mayflower set sail.

This is an edited version of an original article that appeared on the Museum Ethnographers Group blog. To read this version click here and select ‘Exhibition’ in the Labels section.