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Living History in Plymouth
Each November, Plymouth, Massachusetts becomes the epicenter for Thanksgiving, America’s national holiday, with a variety of commemorations and activities that highlight the city’s historical significance. To learn more about Plymouth, past and present, we spoke with Ellie Donovan, executive director of Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum that replicates the original 17th century settlement of the Pilgrims.
Give us a quick snapshot of your career in museums and public history, and describe the Plantation’s present role in terms of historical education and cultural tourism.
I have worked in the museum field for over twenty-five years. Since 2009, I have served as the executive director of Plimoth Plantation. My passion for public history education is grounded in my belief that we have the responsibility as Americans to keep alive the remarkable story of the founding of the United States. Heritage and cultural tourism throughout Massachusetts provide visitors to museums like Plimoth Plantation with a wonderful experience and a deeper understanding of the roots of the United States.
What are some of the events this month that showcase the historical and cultural importance of Plymouth?
In November we focus on indigenous history because it’s Native American Heritage Month. Visitors love our themed harvest dinners in November. And our ‘Eat Like a Pilgrim’ dinners are very popular, complete with tasty food, a bit of history, and the table manners and recipes that crossed the Atlantic with the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving is our busiest day of the year and thousands of people come to dine and learn about history. Elsewhere in Plymouth, Illuminate Thanksgiving –created by Plymouth 400 –takes place on Saturday, November 17th, the same day as the wonderful America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Parade. Plymouth Center for the Arts showcases a juried exhibit this month. While many coastal communities see visitation drop off sharply after the summer, Plymouth sees visitors right through Thanksgiving weekend. There’s always something to see and do in America’s Hometown!
Tell us about the significance of Mayflower II, and its anticipated return to the harbor after its $7.5 million restoration is completed.
Mayflower is the iconic centerpiece of the 400th anniversary because the Pilgrims’ arrival transformed world history; they placed the cornerstone in this Nation with the writing of the Mayflower Compact. Mayflower II, the full-scale reproduction of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to New England in 1620, is a historic ship in her own right. She will return to her home at the state pier in Plymouth harbor once that berth is dredged. Plimoth Plantation is delighted to be collaborating with other great history organizations including the USS Constitution Museum for a sail to Boston in May 2020; and with the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, and General Society of Mayflower Descendants on a sail to Provincetown in September 2020 to reenact the signing of the Compact.
The relationship between the Wampanoag People and the English Pilgrims is a central theme in your work. What surprises visitors about this historical relationship when they tour your facility?
Visitors are often surprised by the complexity of the relationship among different Native People of this region (Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, Nipmuc, and more); and between the leaders of Plymouth Colony and Massasoit, the leader of the Pokonawket people. Their stories are – as most human stories are – nuanced, complex, layered. The 17th century reveals a wide range of actions, opinions and changing perspectives on the part of Native and English people alike. This resulted in everything from strong diplomatic alliances and peace treaties to violent clashes; and from friendships and shared meals to profound misunderstandings about land ownership and land use. Rather sadly, visitors are also surprised that there are Native People still living here in Massachusetts.
Plimoth Plantation is an important educational and tourism destination in Massachusetts but also a noted archeological resource. Can you update us on efforts to digitize your collection and to create multi-media and living history experiences for visitors?
Plimoth Plantation’s archaeological collection is an unparalleled resource for the study of 17th-century material culture and lifeways. The 50,000 artifacts from more than 100 colonial and Native sites (primarily in Plymouth and Barnstable counties) offer rich insights into life before and after the arrival of Europeans. We have begun to digitize the collection. When complete, visitors to the Museum’s website will be able to explore objects that are not on public display. Scholars will be able to evaluate the Museum’s resources for potential research projects. Schools will be able to create 3D printed copies of artifacts for hands-on use in classrooms. The collections are identifying new research avenues, inspiring new museum theater performances, as well as talks, demonstrations, and guided tours.
Thank you, Ellie, and Happy Thanksgiving!