400 years is a long time and four centuries of conflict cannot be ignored, forgotten – or forgiven. Our shared history is one of cultural collision. There is damage and hurt. That is long-term and also more recent.
In 1970, the Wampanoag were censored out of the American commemorations, which resulted in what is now recognised as the National Day of Mourning. Here, as part of the 350th anniversary in 1970, other Native Americans were welcomed to the city, but it appears Wampanoag people were not. We wanted to change that too for 2020. The co-curation of the Legend and Legacy exhibition would make that possible – if we could find a compatible connection over time and sea.
But partnerships take time – and trust. Why would, or should, the Wampanoag people work with us? The history is uncomfortable. Naively perhaps, I also failed to appreciate that colonisation is living history. That was learning to come.
Following months of questions and concerns, our exchanges became answers and suggestions. The Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth 400 recommended we establish a partnership with Smoke Sygnals (Wampanoag history and communication specialists) ‘to develop a foundation of a shared history between our people’. The mother and son team of Paula and Steven Peters recognised that we wanted to listen and to learn.
My kind of curation is about being open to ideas, ready to create, and committed to getting the story right for contributors and audiences.
SmokeSygnals transformed my aspirations, understanding and outlook on what the Legend and Legacy exhibition could be, and what The Box’s programme for Mayflower 400 could be. Listening, learning and living the past through Paula, Steven and the Wampanoag artists and artisans they’ve introduced our city to, is a privilege.
They have made a 17th century moment a meaningful 21st century experience. They are living alongside their ancestors, while reimagining a culture corrupted by colonisation, and living with its consequences today. That’s powerful. Together we realised we could shape a new interpretation of our shared past – one which included them at last.