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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October 5, 2011: Of Plimoth Plantation

The museum and historic site at Plimoth Plantation is a hugely interesting and significant AmericanStudies space for at least three distinct, if interconnected, reasons. For one thing, since the Plantation’s origins in the late 1940s, it has worked to create what is usually known as a living history museum, a site in which highly trained and educated “interpreters” reenact the identities and voices and perspectives of early 17th century Pilgrims. The work done by such living history museums has become an increasing subject for scholarly research and analysis; it’s not unrelated to Civil War reenactments, but with an explicit and central emphasis on education, with the reenactors not so much fulfilling their own interests or passions (as do Civil War reenactors) as seeking to connect audiences to the people and period they’re recreating. The performers are exceptionally good at what they do, almost disconcertingly so; for an AmericanStudier like me, it’s difficult to talk to them without trying constantly to break the fourth wall and discuss their own choices and goals. But we’ll get the chance to have some of those conversations, with a good deal less awkwardness, in Special Sessions at the NEASA conference next month!

If those living history components to Plimoth go back many decades, the second AmericanStudies element is significantly more recent. Just a few hundred yards from the Plantation recreation is the Wampanoag Homesite, a very different kind of living history: while the Homesite’s spaces and places, its tools and cooking processes and the like, are indeed recreations of their 17th century equivalents, the staff of Native Americans (many Wampanoag, but others from various other nations) exist entirely in our 21st century moment, providing their own perspectives on the historical, cultural, and national questions to which the site connects. More broadly, the Homesite illustrates just how fully and to my mind successfully Plimoth has worked in the last few decades to provide a historical and educational experience that does full justice to the Wampanoag community and stories. Certainly it’s possible to experience the Homesite and Plantation as two very distinct and separate spaces, an effect that could be called a component to multicultural American history and identity more generally; but at least in part the job of the Plantation is to tell each part of the story, and then to allow its audiences to consider for themselves how those parts and communities interconnect.
Yet the Plantation’s third AmericanStudies element exemplifies the site’s most complex but, I would (unsurprisingly) argue, its most crucial goal: highlighting the ultimately and fundamentally interconnected stories and identities of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. This element, the orientation film, is one that at many museums would likely be the least interesting or innovative feature; but at Plimoth the current film, entitled “Two Peoples: One Story,” was produced by the History Channel and is, despite its relatively straightforward basic agenda (to introduce arriving audiences to what they’ll find out at the Plantation and Homesite), a complex and very impressive work. For example, the Wampanoag characters/actors in the film speak in the Wampanoag language, a small detail that is anything but when we recognize the long history of Native American languages being silenced or even actively repressed in favor of English. Yet it’s really the film’s title that reflects its most impressive quality, its consistent insistence on cross-cultural story- and history-telling, on narrating the stories of these two communities as, from those first 1620 moments down to the present museum experience, entirely and crucially intertwined. That doesn’t meant that the film elides the more destructive results of contact for the Wampanoag nation—far from it—but it does give every arriving visitor a clear reminder that the story of Plimoth Plantation is a story of multiple cultures coexisting and conversing and influencing one another in every way, from the most negative to the most potentially inspiring.

All three elements will in fact be focal points at the conference—at those Friday and Saturday special sessions (and at Friday’s featured plenary panel as well, for that matter), but also throughout the conference in other, informal but important ways. I haven’t ever attended a conference where the site was as much a conference subject as any panel conversation, but there are few sites that are better equipped to serve that role than Plimoth Plantation. More tomorrow, as the NEASA-focused week rolls on,

PS. Four links to start with:
1)      Google books version of one of the best scholarly analyses of Plimoth’s living history performances, by former interpreter turned professor Stephen Eddy Snow:

2)      Some official info on the Wampanoag Homesite:

3)      Story on the Wampanoag Homesite that includes some relevant info on the film:

4)      OPEN:  Any museums or historic sites that you’d highlight?

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