Creating the Future Through the Past

Is a museum a place where cultures go to die, or where they go to live?  According to James Clifford, the answer is increasingly the latter.  Museums are becoming places of cultural exchange, reciprocity, and contest.  They are becoming contact zones, where cultures enter into ongoing relationships.  According to Clifford, “When museums are seen as contact zones, their organizing structure as a collection becomes an ongoing historical, political, moral relationship – a power-charged set of exchanges, of push and pull.” [1]

We in the museum profession are sometimes conflicted between our desire to give other cultures a voice in our institution with our desire to maintain curatorial and interpretive control.  The Wampanoag Homsite at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA shows that giving other cultures a voice in an institution can substantially enhance the institution’s ability to accomplish its mission.

Image by Swampytank, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License

The Wampanoag Homesite is quite literally a “living” history site.  The interpreters and visitors at the site, as participants in a contact zone, are making history as they preserve it.  Not only does the Homesite educate visitors about the history and traditions of the Wampanoag people, but it also serves as a representation of Native People’s contemporary worldview.  It allows Natives to display their heritage, as well as to articulate their desire for recognition and respect in the present.

The creation of Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Indigenous Program in the early 1970s was influenced by the cultural movements of the time.  During the 1960s and 1970s, Native groups attempted to fight back against the marginalization of Native Peoples in American culture and politics.[2] Although Plimoth Plantation had not ignored the Native perspective, it had previously been told from a European point of view.   The Plantation began outreach to the Wampanoag community in the early 1970s, with mixed results.  However, by 1972, two Wampanoag tribal members had joined the board of the museum, and by 1973, the Wampanoag Indigenous Program was established.[3] The early years of the Wampanoag Homesite were not without their difficulties.  It proved difficult to find Native People with sufficient knowledge of traditional crafts, and the museum had difficulty incorporating the Homesite into its administrative structure.[4]

Today, the Wampanoag Homesite is a thriving part of Plimoth Plantation.  Members of the Wampanoag and other tribes demonstrate traditional crafts such as basket weaving and boatbuilding.  Unlike the 1627 English village, the interpreters at the Wampanoag Homesite do not portray historical characters.  Although they wear traditional clothing, they speak in modern dialect and interact with visitors as themselves.  This fulfills the dual role of the Wampanoag Homesite as a place where Native culture can be represented in both its contemporary and historic forms.

There is an extensive Frequently Asked Questions section on the Plimoth Plantation website, which prepares visitors for their encounter with the Wampanoag culture.  Some of the questions cover basic cultural sensitivity issues, such as whether it is acceptable to greet interpreters with “How” (it is not), while others are more nuanced, explaining the reasons for calling the Wampanoag “Native People” rather than “American Indians”.  This is the nature of a contact zone.  Culture is constantly being defined, as each group learns and shares from others.  When museums allow themselves to become contact zones, they give up some control, but they gain power and strength by allowing multiple cultures to shape the institution.  By doing this, a museum not only enhances its ability to interpret the past, but also becomes able to shape the future.

[1] James Clifford, “Museums as Contact Zones,” in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 192

[2] Elizabeth A. Peterson, “Time Travelers Wanted: Re-Imagining the Past at Plimoth Plantation, 1965-1978” (MA thesis, State University of New York at Oneonta, 2009), 45

[3] Ibid, 52-55

[4] Ibid, 63-64

[5] “Wampanoag Homesite Frequently Asked Questions”

2 thoughts on “Creating the Future Through the Past

  1. I really like how the Plymouth Plantation are able to incorporate a thriving culturally sensitive and contemporary living history exhibit on the Native People of Plymouth Plantation. At Colonial Williamsburg there is a noticable lack of information regarding Native People. Though they were definitely present in the period depicted by Colonial Williamsburg, there seems to be some lack of information or communication or interest between the contemporary tribes of the area and Colonial Williamsburg. Although there have been special events where contemporary Native People have dressed in traditional and historic garb to depict historic meetings with the colonial leaders in Williamsburg, these events have been few and far between. I would love to see Colonial Williamsburg perhaps use Plymouth Plantation as a model to bring these stories to life.

  2. I have been thinking about our discussion in class about the Wampanoag Homesite. I shared my friend’s experience with someone working at the homesite. Although it may not have been what he was expecting, maybe there is something very valid in his experience. When he visited the site he was dismissed by someone chopping wood. This was opposite to his experience inside the walls of Plymouth. I think this experience may be more powerful that anything that happened inside Plymouth Plantation. He was able to experience a cultural encounter that was real. Unlike the experiences with the interpreters inside, this experience was on the terms of a real person that is part of a community. It showed him how this person saw his culture in this space at this moment. We will never know how someone in Plymouth would have really saw his/her culture no matter how many primary sources we read.

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