New dates for touring exhibition that tells story of Wampanoag Native America

Jul 31, 2020

New dates have been announced for the first touring exhibition by The Box, Plymouth as part of the Mayflower 400 commemorations.

Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America unites contemporary indigenous artists in the USA with historic museum collections in the UK.

Told by Wampanoag voices throughout, it is the story of Wampanoag Native America.

The Wampanoag people have lived in north eastern America for 12,000 years. Their nation extended beyond Boston, into Central Massachusetts and south to Rhode Island.

The Mayflower passengers arrived there in 1620. Yet for almost 400 years, the impact of the Mayflower’s arrival on the Wampanoag Nation has been widely marginalised in the telling of Mayflower history.

Linda Coombs and Paula Peters

This new exhibition is presented by The Box, Plymouth and grew out of a partnership with Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth 400 and the Wampanoag cultural advisors SmokeSygnals.

It unites contemporary indigenous artists and educators in the USA with museums and historic collections in the UK. It features the first artistic commission from the UK to acknowledge our cultural connection to the Wampanoag Native American nation - a new wampum belt.

Wampum belts are a tapestry of art and tribal history. Made from the purple and white shells of the whelk and quahog, wampum beads embody the Wampanoag connection to the sea and to life itself. Each shell bead is imbued with memory and meaning by the maker.

Wampum belts are of cultural, sacred and symbolic significance to the Wampanoag nation. Through wampum belts, the Wampanoag share stories of their communities and culture.

An early part of new wampum belt

The newly crafted wampum belt has been created by more than 100 artisans from the Wampanoag nation and consists of 5,000 handcrafted beads. It will tour with historic wampum belts from the British Museum collection. On completion of the tour, the new wampum belt will be returned to the Wampanoag Nation.

It is hoped that through this touring exhibition, a lost Native American treasure may be uncovered – the wampum belt of the Wampanoag chief Metacom.

It has not been seen since it was sent to England in 1677 following the King Philip’s War, and has been the subject of an intensive international search that began in late 1970 and continues to this day.

Funded by Arts Council England as part of its support for the Mayflower 400 programme, Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America will explore the history, art and culture of the Native Americans who met the passengers of the Mayflower on their arrival in modern day Massachusetts in 1620 and ensured their survival.

Wampanoag artists will share their story and set out their creative aspirations for the future through images, ideas and wampum.

Phil Gibby, Area Director, South West, Arts Council England, said: "We are thrilled that Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America is soon to embark on its national tour, which is brilliant news not only for Plymouth and Southampton but for people all over the country.

"This culturally significant exhibition recognises the huge impact the arrival of the Mayflower had on the Wampanoag Nation, and uses creativity to tell this important story through the creation of a new Wampum belt.

"We are delighted to support the exhibition through a £700,000 investment in Plymouth City Council’s The Art of the Possible cultural programme for the Mayflower’s commemorative year, with huge thanks to the National Lottery.

Watch our short film of the making of the Wampum Belt below.



"At Arts Council, we believe creativity and culture has the ability to connect communities, enrich cross-cultural understanding and bring people together – which is why we’re so delighted to support this momentous exhibition."

The exhibition is a headline event of Mayflower 400, a four-nation programme to commemorate and explore the 400 year anniversary of the journey and impact of one of history’s most famous ships.

Marking a step-change from previous commemorations and in recognition that their involvement is critical in understanding the history and legacy of the Mayflower, collaborative projects with the Wampanoag and wider Native American nations are central to the Mayflower 400 programme.

Danielle Hill with the new wampum belt

Paula Peters, of Native American creative agency SmokeSygnals and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation said: "The Mayflower story cannot honestly be told without including the Wampanoag nation and the devastating impact of colonisation on indigenous people.

"We are grateful to have been invited to contribute our historical and cultural knowledge to the Mayflower 400 commemoration unencumbered by centuries of marginalisation and uncensored by contemporary event planners

"The people who are participating in the making of the new wampum belt are sharing the story in the age-old oral tradition of the Wampanoag.

"The White Pine in the centre of the belt tells our creation story - that we came from her roots more than 12,000 years ago to become the people of the dawn. This belt will preserve our stories for many generations of Wampanoag to come."

Jo Loosemore, co-curator of Wampum: Stories and Shells from Native America added: "Four hundred years ago, England took its culture to Native America. Now, 400 years on, Native America is bringing its culture here.

"Wampum has always been used in diplomacy, so it seems appropriate that it will connect our cultures in 2020. We are honoured to be able to welcome the Wampanoag people and the wampum that is so special to them into English museums this year and next.

"It is a privilege to work alongside contemporary artists and educators from the Wampanoag Nation. We have a lot to learn from them and this exhibition gives us that opportunity."

Wampum, translated literally as bead, is sacred and symbolic. It carries the history, the culture and the name of the Wampanoag people.

Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America is a local, national and international project. Created on both sides of the Atlantic, this exhibition connects the US and the UK, Wampanoag artists and English audiences, the past and the present. It also looks to the future and to a new relationship across an ocean.

Mirroring the route of the Mayflower’s passengers, this exhibition can be seen at SeaCity Museum, Southampton from 15 August to 18 October. The exhibition will then continue to Guildhall Art Gallery, London from 8 January to 14 February 2021 and The Box, Plymouth from 15 May to 19 July 2021, where items from the British Museum collection will also be included.

The tour partners for the exhibition are The British Museum, Guildhall Art Gallery London, SeaCity, Southampton and Saffron Walden Museum.

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