Episode 76

76. 400 Years Post-Mayflower, the Provincetown Museum Rethinks Its Historical Branding

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About this Episode

Sometimes, a historical event is all about the branding. And the brand of Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts as the spot where the Mayflower pilgrims first disembarked 400 years ago this year is pretty strong.

The branding is strong enough to override the fact that the Mayflower actually first landed on the other side of Cape Cod, in what is now Provincetown. The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum commemorates that site. And even within a museum that’s trying to correct an inaccuracy, it has its own to grapple with: the museum used to portray the meetings between the members of the Wampanoag Nation and the Mayflower pilgrims with dehumanizing murals.

In this episode, Courtney Hurst, board president of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, describes how the museum is working to correct these inaccuracies by working closely with the Wampanoag Nation. And as the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arrival approaches, the museum is in the middle of yet another rebrand. Just as the word pilgrim was reframed by Mayflower passenger William Bradford as a way to tie his journey to stories in the Christian Bible, the museum is reframing the word pilgrim to include recent Provincetown history.

This episode was recorded at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum on February 22, 2020.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 76. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Sometimes, a historical event is all about the branding. And the brand of Plymouth Rock as the spot where William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims first disembarked is pretty strong.

In the American tradition that I grew up learning, the Rock symbolized the Pilgrim’s arrival in what is now the United States, and the beginning of their interactions with the Native Nations who lived nearby. Plymouth Rock is an easy visualization tool, a shorthand, something that sticks in your mind.

But, the Mayflower didn’t first land on Plymouth Rock, or even near what is now Plymouth Massachusetts. Its first five weeks -- including the signing of the Mayflower compact -- happened in a bay on the other side of Cape Cod, near a city now called Provincetown.

Courtney Hurst: I grew up in Provincetown, and when you grow up in Provincetown, and it’s all you know, it's all you ever know. So I grew up knowing that the Pilgrims landed here. And we were always taught the importance of that, the Mayflower compact, and to go out in the world and realize that not everyone was taught that is just fanicanting. They spent five and a half weeks here exploring our shores, there were a lot of significant moments before they realized that the terrain was just too rocky, not as protected from the weather. So they got back on the boat and headed to Plymouth. For whatever reason, in history books and when kids were thought, it just picks up in Plymouth.

After those five weeks, the Mayflower continued on to Plymouth, where the pilgrims settled. It’s really easy to compress five weeks, particularly if they happened 400 years ago. The quest here is not just accuracy -- it’s not about saying, “well actually.” It’s to be aware that we’re all participating in historical branding -- and that monuments and museums are perhaps the best brand ambassadors.

Courtney Hurst: Hello. My name is Courtney Hurst and I'm president of the board at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum. So it is interesting. Even recently, unfortunately there was some graffiti on Plymouth rock just last week. And in the news, you know, every news feed was running it, especially here locally. And it was saying Plymouth, the landing place of the pilgrims. So we were, we were calling to correct people and say, that's actually not true.

The Provincetown Museum sits under the Pilgrim Monument -- a slim granite tower that dominates the skyline of Provincetown. The monument was completed in 1910 to draw attention to the fact that the Mayflower landed here first -- good branding.

As a school kid, Hurst said that the top of the tower was a great place to escape with friends, and since the museum was free, she would hang out there whenever her school was between sports seasons. But during those childhood visits, she was unaware of another type of dehumanizing branding happening in the exhibits.

Courtney Hurst: A whole wing used to be aligned with these huge murals, almost life size. As a kid, they felt life-size. And now that I'm talking, I see they're not, but they're big. And each one depicted a different moment in the Pilgrim's arrival and the impact on that Wampanoag Nation.

So it’s their first interaction. And the Native people all look exactly alike. There's no definition in their faces. Their hair is exactly alike. They all look really aggressive, really angry, and that they're on the attack. The pilgrims all have very distinct features. They're wearing different clothes, their expressions, they look almost fearful. They are cowering. They almost look like they are under attack. So you can even start to go layers deeper and deeper and deeper in the inaccuracy is, but when you just look at it, the stereotype that it was portraying on a subconscious level.

The portrayal of Wampanoag people like this isn’t unique, but it serves the narrative of the pilgrim's virtue and nobility in the face of a hostile world—not only were they persecuted in Europe, that narrative goes, they were also persecuted in the new world, which creates a justification for anything that happens afterwards. All this is buttressed by the implied neutrality of the museum.

Courtney Hurst: And they were so inaccurate that we're actually going to leave one of them up in this new exhibit as a, can you point out what's wrong? And is part of the interactive of the exhibit will be to show what’s wrong.

The new exhibit, which is called Our Story, is a partnership between the Provincetown Museum and members of the Wampanoag Nation.

Courtney Hurst: So Our Story, we’re working in conjunction with the Wampanoag Tribe, Paula Peters and Steven Peters specifically have been the real brains behind it and the execution of it. We have learned in the last few years through working so closely with the Wampanoag tribe that a lot of the story was wrong. And then it wasn't told accurately. So we have worked with them to create a whole entire new exhibit. We've gutted the room and we're rebuilding it, and it's called Our Story. And what's interesting about it is it will be told from their perspective as far as how they were living here before the pilgrims showed up.

An example of a story from those first five weeks that has been told exclusively from a colonial lens is the story of Corn Hill -- the spot near Provincetown where pilgrims “found” stores of corn preserved by the Wampanoag.

Courtney Hurst: it was always positioned as they just simply found the corn, and that's how history tells it. It was actually stolen corn, that it was clear the way that it was stored, the way that it was kept, that it had been put there by people. There's no way that you could have been able, they even say that in their log. So it was clear people were living here, they just hadn't come across them yet.

The Our Story gallery opens later this year to commemorate the 400 Year Anniversary of the Pilgrims Arrival, under the initiative Provincetown 400. The initiative is planning for a much different commemoration than the 300th anniversary in back 1920. Back then, it was called a celebration, not a commemoration, and included pageants and parades.

Courtney Hurst: It's not a celebration for everyone and that it is. Somewhat more solemn and that, yes, you know, the pilgrims came here and they did some good things and they were brave for coming here and seeking. And that's part of the story. But it's not all to be celebrated. So we've been training ourselves for the last two years.

Even that small nuance of a word, but it's not a nuance when you see how important it is. So everything from that word choice will shift to things like, we're not having a parade. You know that that was an initial brainstorm idea. You think like, Centennial, let's do a parade. And things like that, we're not going to do that. Cause that would be seen as disrespectful and we understand that. So the collaboration has been so tight throughout that I think it's going to feel a lot different in all those ways, I hope.

But the Provincetown Museum is also in the middle of another, maybe even bigger branding change: connecting the pilgrim story of 400 years ago to the modern history of Provincetown. Over past 100 years, Provincetown has attracted artists, playwrights, and the LGBT+ community. Today, Provincetown is perhaps the best-known gay resort on the U.S.’s East Coast.

Hurst wants to expand who we think of as Provincetown’s Pilgrims. The word “pilgrim” has been intentionally used to describe the passengers of the Mayflower because of a passage in William Bradford's journal, therefore connecting his journey to the Christian Bible. That’s good branding. But Hurst sees a throughline to Provincetown’s more recent history as well.

Courtney Hurst: We're hoping to reframe the word Pilgrim and for it to symbolize a group of people and really what they're seeking, which is to be accepted for who they are, whatever that be, whether it’s religious freedom or any freedom at all, seeking a place for them to be themselves.

I think there's a sense that this board and this team are committed to telling a more accurate story of Provincetown. And the Mayflower pilgrims were the first pilgrims to arrive here 400 years ago, and they came seeking acceptance and tolerance and freedom. And then pilgrims of all sorts have come to Provincetown shores since them, they were the first, but so many, the fishermen, the artists, the LGBQT community, so many. So we're really hoping that we can take each of those stories, each of those pilgrim stories, and tell a cohesive history of Provincetown.

Growing up here, the AIDS epidemic was so close to us, and again, you just grow up thinking that's what most people saw and life. And to think that my mom would like cruise dinners by guy's house that were struggling and had no one, and how many of them came here to, in some cases, die and how this town, these Portuguese women in the community just took them in and loved them and really took care of them.

That's a story that's, you know, it's Provincetown story, but it's, it's the AIDS story and it's a national story. And that's a case that likely might be in the new updated version of the museum. So when we say that we want to tell a more accurate, it's even just a more comprehensive story cause it does have a thread in the nation's history as well.

An example of a future exhibit might be about the Spiritus Pizza riot of 1990, which Hurst says was Provincetown’s analog to the important Stonewall riots in New York City.

Courtney Hurst: When the bars would get out at night. And typically the gay bars would get out and not just gay bars, but gay people would come into the street and they would all eat pizza and it would be really hard to get through. Well, one night there was a police officer was giving some, giving them trouble unnecessarily, shouldn't have been, and the group rioted. So these moments that were happening here in our Cosmo, but shifted the town and the town shifted legislature on what used to be called gaybashing and putting more laws in place and protecting them even further. And it was this moment that for us changed perception and culture in Provincetown.

Historical brands are powerful. In the same way that a single moment can shift a town’s legislation for the better, a photogenic rock can diminish five weeks of history in the minds of millions of students, and the word choice that a museum uses can turn a bushel of stolen corn into just an innocent lucky find.

As the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival approaches, the Provincetown Museum is preparing for the commemoration by changing things up. They don’t use the word branding—but, like the Pilgrims themselves, they’re expanding the word pilgrim to include recent Provincetown history, they’re working to tell the story of members of the Wampanoag nation directly instead of through the lens of the colonists. And they want people to know that the Mayflower landed here first before moving on to Plymouth.

Courtney Hurst: So we obviously want to shine a spotlight on the fact that the pilgrims actually landed here and the time that they spent here. But beyond that, we're hoping to cast a spotlight on Provincetown as a place that is welcoming to pilgrims. And that message for us in today's time feels just as powerful.