by Jo Loosemore, Mayflower 400 for The Box, Plymouth

Over the next few days we’re going to be giving you an update about a unique partnership project that was originally announced late last year when Plymouth did the first major reveal of its Mayflower 400 programme.

‘Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America’ is an ambitious response to the 2020 anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower and the creative opportunities it offers on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s been made possible thanks to funding from Arts Council England.

This is a partnership project that unites The Box with Wampanoag artists and educators in the USA – as well as with partners in the UK. It will result in:

    • a new wampum belt, made exclusively by the Wampanoag people of Mashpee and Aquinnah
    • the opportunity to bring Wampanoag artists to the British Museum to record, interpret and explore one of the world’s largest collections of historic wampum belts
    • a touring exhibition which aims to bring the US and the UK, and the old and the new together for the first time in venues along the Mayflower 400 trail
    • a cross-cultural public programme of talks and activities celebrating Wampanoag art and culture

This the first UK commission to acknowledge our cultural connection to the Wampanoag people who met the passengers of the Mayflower and ensured the survival of the new English settlers 400 years ago.

Photo of a detail of a wampum belt - purple with a white geometric design in the centre

Image of a wampum belt from the British Museum’s collection

Bead-maker Jason Widdis, weaver Linda Coombs and scholar Paula Peters have already begun the work of creating a new wampum belt.

Photo showing a close up of a quahog shell on a beach

A quahog shell

Wampum is made from the shells of quahogs (hard-shelled clams found along the eastern coast of North America), and crafted into purple or white beads carefully woven together.

The new belt will require 5,000 beads if it is to be nearly 5 feet long. Great skill and finesse are required to create a wampum belt so as you can imagine this is a massive undertaking for the makers.

Moreover, wampum is sacred and symbolic. It carries the history, culture and name of the Wampanoag people. Wampum belts are the creative expression of their stories. Each shell is filled with memory and meaning.

The new belt is being designed to reflect rich ancestral traditions and the continuing craft of wampum-making in and around Cape Cod.

We’ll have more about this throughout the week and will also be sharing information about the research trip to the British Museum – so stay tuned.

If you’d like even more background you can also read a previous blog post which includes more information about the Wampanoag here.

Photo of a detail of a wampum belt - white with a series of purple beads running in a diagonal line through the centre

Image of a wampum belt from the British Museum’s collection