Thursday, October 6, 2016

Mythbusters: Pilgrim Edition

Virtually every American knows a Pilgrim myth or two.  It's the kind of thing many of us learn at every Thanksgiving dinner and with every hand-made paper turkey on a school classroom window. I'll have to admit, that when I visited the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA, I expected more of the same.  The museum opened in 1824 and describes itself as "America's museum of Pilgrim possessions."  But, I was walking by, and decided to visit--and was incredibly surprised at the smart, thoughtful exhibit that deconstructed--that busted those myths--about Pilgrims.

A few examples:   the opening label talks about the Pilgrim story, but doesn't quite give the full hint that some myths are about to be busted.  The mythbusting took two prevalent forms.  First, deconstructing what we believe (and the stories that museums have often told) about objects.  For instance, the spinning wheel above, and label below, which says, "in fact, no spinning wheels recorded in the Colony until the late 1630s."  (no sheep, either).

And here's another one, about a sword. When was the last time you read a label that said, "This is not possible."

The exhibit included reproduction clothing, showing how our ideas about Pilgrims were reflected in the clothes worn and depicted, in films, paintings, and even in museums.  Below, a label from one interpretive era, and clothing from another.

With some objects and images, the labels cleverly paired the mythmaking (Longfellow, you have much to answer for) with quotations from historic documents.

The romance of laughter and tremulous voices, compared with death and eleven children.  This painting of Thanksgiving gets these contrasting labels.

Note the inclusion of the contemporary voice of Linda Coombs, a member of the Wampanoag nation, on the label, contrasting directly with Sarah Josepha Hale's 19th century voice.

It's the rare museum that takes on busting up its own history.  Consider your own history museum. What stories could benefit from some revision?  Can you do some rethinking that lets your audience into the messy nature of history?  How about a new take on those cows in your community?


William said...

There is a persistent myth that the Mayflower voyage was a religious undertaking. But how about the fact that many of the people on the mayflower weren't religious pilgrims at all? Historians have traditionally sorted them as "saints (separatists) and strangers" - many of them weren't from the Separatist congregation, or were simply the servants of the separatists, were not religiously motivated, such as better-known "strangers" - passengers Stephen Hopkins, John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, Miles Standish, John Howland.

Jeremy Bangs said...

"William" is repeating a myth created largely by the book published in 1945, George Willison's Saints and Strangers. A more nuanced view is found in the analysis of passengers on the "Mayflower" in the book Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners - Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation (GSMD, 2009), which I wrote on the basis of considerably more archival research than Willison had available. 22 of the 102 passengers were not from Leiden. Most of the others were. Those who were not from Leiden were led by Christopher Martin, who held very similar religious beliefs to those of the people from Leiden. So "historians have traditionally sorted them as 'saints'(separatists) and strangers' is merely repeating Willison and promoting it to superior status with the generalized "historians have ..."

Cassidy said...

I'm not sure about the objects with labels that say "this is part of the myth, but inaccurately so" - it seems very likely that a lot of people will remember the spinning wheel and sword being there, but not the labels themselves - but I love the 17th century vs. 19th century label concept!

Jeremy, thank you for expanding on the proportions of saints:strangers, and the religious beliefs of the "strangers". It's not a field I've really looked into - very interesting.