Hard times at Plimoth Plantation

How a museum of living history grapples with a changing world.

The ancestors. Who were they and what did they want? John Winslow (d. 1673 or 1674), for example. He arrived in America in 1621, a year after the Mayflower and a bit too late for the first Thanksgiving. What did he want?

Just now he said he wanted me to drape my napkin across my shoulder. He’s materialized behind my chair, his face full of Puritan severity, his accent Jacobean-era West Midlands. My napkin is in my lap, as is my phone, which I’ve been staring into for I’m not sure how long. This is impolite in any social setting, and especially at a 17th-century harvest feast.

’Tis correct for a man to array his napery thusly — I’m paraphrasing — ’twould likewise be correct to leave off the moody nether-table fiddling, which looketh arrant strange.

I’m paraphrasing because I’m on the grounds of Plimoth Plantation, a museum of living history in Plymouth, Massachusetts. (The “Plimoth” in the name derives from the “Plimoth” in the writings of the Colony’s second governor, William Bradford (d. 1657), which predate standardized spelling.) I’ve been granted interviews with three employees and told that, apart from these, I “cannot quote” any other employee, though it will be “fine” for me to “reflect” on my “overall experience.” This directive was issued by the museum’s friendly, intermittently solicitous communications rep, who didn’t love it when I told him I’d already found some pilgrims on Facebook and sent them messages asking if they’d like to talk. I’d wanted to do a nice Thanksgiving piece about a place I’d first visited in the third grade. I thought it would be simple. But little about history is simple, and the same may be said about history museums, or at least about this one.

An interpreter prepares fritters in her one-room house at Plimoth Plantation in 2003.

An interpreter prepares fritters in her one-room house at Plimoth Plantation in 2003.

I found Bridget Fuller (d. circa 1667) on Facebook. Rather, I found the woman portraying Fuller on Facebook, but here she is Bridget, in a bonnet and petticoat, about to make an announcement from the little mic-and-amp set-up beside the fireplace. I and the hundred or so other guests have gathered in a bright function hall inside the museum’s 20th-century visitor center. We’ve all bought tickets ($48 with a membership, $68 without) for what the website promises will be a “savory journey into the past.” Bridget wants us to know that our pewter flatware is lead free, and that our places have been set with spoons but not forks because forks are what Italians use to shovel hay, and that the “stew’d pompion” has been prepared with vinegar, so as to trick the palate by approaching the savor of apples, of which this strange land is sadly bereft.

Plimoth is a 21st-century institution, with 21st-century issues, one of which is a labor dispute; 70 of the museum’s 150 employees unionized with the United Auto Workers last December amid complaints of substandard working conditions. This might explain why so few at the museum seem eager to talk to me. After the communications rep heard about my Facebooking, the Facebook pilgrims stopped responding, though not before one wrote to say that my messages — which were objectively courteous — had caused some people to feel “creeped out.”

Now that I think about it, I can’t remember if my class trip to Plimoth happened in third grade or second. Like memory, history is fissured and distorted and partial. Why view these colonials as our American ancestors? Couldn’t that label be applied to every person who ever lived on the fat middle-third of the continent? How many in that multitude could have ever imagined or wanted anything like this? How did we get here, and where are we? We are two-and-a-half miles up the road from Plymouth Rock, where, the story goes, America began.

It was late October, 2017, and it was late October, 1624. It was before the feast and Facebook and my first exchange with the communications rep. I’d stepped into the museum’s English Village, past the two-story, cannon-mounted fort, and found Barbara Standish (d. 1659) outside her thatched-roofed, daub-walled, dirt-floored home, hewing tinder. “I’m a writer from the future,” I announced, and tried to give her a slip of paper with my email. “Maybe, when you get to the future, you might want to talk about your work.”

She didn’t take the paper. She was vexed by sundry travails, and hoped it would soon please God to make her a landowner. I bade her farewell, and continued down the Village’s lone street, peering in and around its dozen or so squat houses. In the 1620s, the Plymouth pilgrims didn’t dress — as they are commonly shown to — in drab, black-and-white garments. The Plimoth pilgrims don’t dress this way either. As is the case with everything in the Village, the clothes are meticulously researched, and as accurate as that research permits. The pilgrims’ colorful, arcanely styled coats and blouses and gowns look worked in, which they are. The pilgrims aren’t only here to chat. They tend gardens, and cook on open fires, and patch flawed ditches.

Visitors walk along Plimoth's main street in July 2017.

Visitors walk along Plimoth's main street in July 2017.

That afternoon, the school groups had all already left. (The museum receives an average of 1,500 visitors each day, of which group tours account for about a third.) I was one of only about five or six guests in the Village. This didn’t diminish the pilgrim’s enthusiasm. They do not break character, and seem perpetually garrulous, as if never quite able to dam up great reservoirs of fact-dense talk. I was told of Charles’s attempt to woo the Spanish Infanta, of the beheading of Sir Walter Raleigh, of disagreeable seasons in Holland, of money squabbles with Merchant Adventurers, and of dear loves languishing across the wide and not infrequently ruinating sea.

A historical interpreter is an “instrument to accessing the past,” according to Richard Pickering, the museum’s deputy director and an occasional interpreter. The aim of the interpretive act, he said, is to stimulate a visitor to discover, through the shared contemplation of history, some profound private insight. At Plimoth, he said, “you’re not just watching other people as if they’re part of a zoo display.”

Many interpreters have advanced degrees in history, museum studies, or education. Others are actors. Some have no relevant professional experience. After they’re hired, they’re given a binder of primary sources, genealogical charts, and all manner of 17th-century Anglo-American esoterica. Each new pilgrim is also trained in the accent of the English settler he or she has been assigned to interpret. After about two weeks of off-site training, new hires are sent to the Village. There, they don’t act scripted scenes, or attempt to improvise drama. The goal is to connect.

I was told of Charles’s attempt to woo the Spanish Infanta, of the beheading of Sir Walter Raleigh, of disagreeable seasons in Holland.

The museum was founded in 1947. Several thousand years ago, the Wampanoag’s ancestors settled in the region, which they called Patuxet. They used a hilly, ample stretch of land by the Eel River and the Eel River Pond as their summer retreat. By the middle of the 20th century, that land belonged to the Boston Hornblowers, who used it for the same nominal purpose. It was here that young Henry “Harry” Hornblower II nurtured a “teenage dream” to create an exhibit that would “show” the lives of Plymouth’s earliest English settlers. In 1945, his father invested $20,000 in this dream. A decade later, Harry’s grandmother left him in her will the 140 acres that the family used as a summer retreat. Today, that land comprises Plimoth Plantation.

In time, the museum’s mission has evolved. Until the 1960s, the Village was a collection of neat homes fronted by decorative gardens, inhabited by inaccurately attired mannequins. By the end of the 1960s, the museum had embraced the concept of “living history,” and the Village was stripped of anything that wouldn’t have been found inside its palisades in the 1620s. The mannequins were replaced and interpreters were hired. Because this was the ’60s, some of these interpreters were hippies. One Mayflower descendant, on entering a lavishly detailed model of his family’s first New World residence to discover some dozing Phil Lesh-lookalike, blasted off an irate letter to the management: “Get rid of the realism, so-called, and give people some ideals to live up to.”

In the decades that followed, the museum has sought to achieve greater and more encompassing degrees of realism. Much of its effort has focused on telling a more inclusive story. Plimoth’s 1947 articles of incorporation stated that museum’s mission was to “serve as a memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers,” whose lives helped shape the modern world. It wasn’t until 1972 that the museum entered a significant partnership with the local Native American community.

Visitors listen to an interpreter at the Wampanoag Homesite.

Visitors listen to an interpreter at the Wampanoag Homesite.

Today, beyond the English Village, about a hundred yards down a wooded path, sits the Wampanoag Homesite, a similarly elaborate re-creation of a 17th-century Wampanoag settlement. The Homesite features three homes (wetus), the newest of which, framed in cedar and wrapped in bark, is claimed to be the largest Native American dwelling in New England. At the Homesite, there is no role-playing. The staff, who are all Wampanoag or members of another Native American nation, speak as themselves, and wear traditional dress and practice traditional crafts. During one visit, one of the staff showed me how to use a controlled fire to hollow a felled tree to make a long boat called a mishoon. He told me that, before the Mayflower, one of his tribal ancestors paddled out from a nearby beach in a ship like this to say hello to Samuel de Champlain.

Plimoth not only interprets and depicts history, but also participates in history, and is stirred by currents of social, political, and economic change. I spoke on the phone with a former pilgrim named Kim Crowley, who worked at the museum for two years, and left before the start of this season. She said that, during a heat wave in the summer of 2016, the air conditioning stopped working in the Village break room, and that management didn’t fix it. She said the pipes below the Village road needed to be fixed, and weren’t repaired sufficiently, and as a result sometimes the break room was without water. She said pilgrims were hired at minimum wage (currently $11/hour in Massachusetts), and often worked at will and without clear job descriptions.

Crowley also said that, at times, there were fewer than ten staff working in the Village, which was about half of what would have been standard a decade prior. Crowley said that pilgrims are charged with intense, potentially dangerous tasks, and are often swarmed with visitors, and that there is pressure from management to remain at or near an assigned area, and that sometimes it was difficult to step away to use the bathroom. “We work in borderline dangerous conditions,” an interpreter named Kate Moore told the The Boston Globe in August. “One of our retirees has stumbled several times, brought it to the attention of management and was quite vocal about it, and lo and behold, he didn’t get asked back this season.”

In spite of these complaints, Crowley told me she loves the museum, and that it was this love that, around the beginning of 2015, prompted some employees to explore the idea of forming a union. Records filed with the Department of Labor show that, prior to the unionization vote in November of last year, the museum retained a firm called LRI Consulting. According to Crowley, LRI’s consultant held obligatory “captive audience” meetings in which he — to borrow the language of that firm’s engagement letter — attempted to educate museum employees on the “disadvantages of unions.” The records filed with the Department of Labor reflect two payments from the museum to LRI during this period ($29,730.58, $11,280.01). The Plimoth union was certified last December. Union and management continue to negotiate, and museum officials repeatedly told me that they are doing so in good faith. The museum has also stated that it “strongly disagrees with the union’s specific assertions” about working conditions, and that a structural engineer has inspected the Village and deemed it safe.

Pilgrim interpreters are charged with intense, potentially dangerous tasks, and are often swarmed with visitors. It can be difficult for them to take bathroom breaks.

Stephen Brodeur, the chair of Plimoth’s Board of Trustees (day job: CEO of Comlink Data; he’s also the stepson of Henry Hornblower), recognizes that paying interpreters to interpret history is expensive. He gave me a brief tour of the terrain during a phone conversation: The museum is doing well, he said, by which he means it’s doing better than it was ten years ago, when things looked less healthy. Plimoth is a true non-profit; its revenues match its expenses. Last year, these were about $9 million. Given these constraints, Brodeur said, it’s imperative to “be realistic about resources.”

It’s also imperative, Brodeur said, to “build the philanthropic base.” The museum has mounted a $17 million capital campaign, of which Brodeur estimated the museum has already raised $13 million. Plimoth’s endowment is relatively small, which forces it to rely more heavily on ticket sales. Brodeur acknowledged that many museums, Plimoth included, are grappling with lower rates of attendance. In 2016, Plimoth received about 350,000 visitors. Thirty years ago, in what he referred to as the museum’s attendance heyday, it attracted nearly half a million visitors in one summer.

Plimoth’s challenges are not without precedent. In June, Colonial Williamsburg terminated 71 employees and outsourced management of its commercial operations. In an open letter, its president wrote that Williamsburg’s goal was to “continue to tell America’s enduring story,” the story that “connects us,” but that it could not do so unless it first became financially stable. Declining attendance had become a major problem, and a major reason for this problem, according to Williamsburg’s president, was “changing times and tastes.”

Taylor Stoermer, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins and Colonial Williamsburg’s former chief historian, said he believes museums of living history are losing out to more accessible learning alternatives, such as documentaries and the internet. He said that almost every major American museum of this kind was founded within a few years of the end of World War II, when people were eager for new places to drive to on road trips. Today, the idea of driving somewhere to learn something seems quaint. As Brodeur said, “facts are free.” I’d add that they are also everywhere.

Inside a typical home on the Plantation.

Inside a typical home on the Plantation.

In a new world, Plimoth is searching for “new ways to connect,” according to Brodeur. It now styles itself, in part, as a hearth of the community. The museum is available for weddings. It has a small cinema, and shows first-run independent movies. It’s been used as a filming location for Top Chef, and The Chew. It would like to find a way, Brodeur said, to make its “content” more “transportable.”

Taylor Stoermer told me American history is being “weaponized,” and that institutions like Plimoth can supply “shields.” They can dispel myths, and inspire a passion for truth, and make the abstract concrete and comprehensible. Of course, to do these things, a museum must attract visitors. Stoermer said museums are wary of causing offense, and that there is pressure to avoid subjects that might challenge a patron’s “comfort level.” It’s easier to “focus on the fun stuff.” As Pickering said, “We’re all trying to live in a world of changing entertainment dollars.”

Last year, on a hill above the center of the town of Plymouth, archeologists discovered evidence of the original English settlement. They found ceramics, animal bones, ammunition, and unique soil, the color of which indicated the vanished presence of centuries-old wooden posts. Two locals told me that, in about the same place, some of the town’s homeless have set up a makeshift camp. Many are victims of the region-wide heroin epidemic, the evidence of which, these locals told me, is becoming increasingly difficult to miss. If the archeologists’ positioning is accurate, and if the locals’ account is right, it’s likely that the spot Myles Standish (d. 1656) selected for Plymouth’s first fort is now littered with used needles and empty bags of junk.

Plymouth Rock.

Plymouth Rock.

At the base of the hill lies Plymouth Rock, which is smaller than everyone seems to expect. It rests in the sand, enclosed within an odd chamber open to the sea but penned in by metal bars. The rock’s face has been chiseled with “1620.” Nearby is the empty landing reserved for the Mayflower II. A reproduction of the original, it was built in England and sailed to Plymouth in 1957, where it was greeted by then-Vice President Nixon. Sixty years later, the ship, having suffered the depredations of time and weather, is in Connecticut, undergoing a long restoration.

A century ago, this stretch of waterfront was overrun with wharfs and warehouses. In 1921, in advance of the tercentenary, these properties were seized by eminent domain and razed to make room for the new, “pilgrimized” harbor. The theme of the tercentenary celebration was “America’s Hometown.” President Harding attended, as did Robert Frost. A crowd of 10,000 watched a pilgrim-themed pageant, which commenced with the voice of Plymouth Rock: “I, the rock of Plymouth, speak to you, Americans.” The only formal Native American involvement seems to have been limited to an “Indian village display,” located a few miles from the harbor in Morton Park.

In 2020, the town will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing. Organizers emphasize that the event is not just about the pilgrims. It will be a multinational, multicultural event. Michelle Pecoraro, the executive director of the so-called Plymouth 400 festivities, said that the Wampanoag will be at the heart of the celebration, telling “the story from their perspective.” For example, they plan to stage a walk of remembrance through the town in honor of their ancestors, and some may paddle out in a mishoon to meet the Mayflower II. And so it’s possible — it is, I guess, probable — that the gleaming, lavishly restored replica of the Mayflower, professedly a symbol of the ardent dreams of a nation of immigrants, will be met on the sea by an ingeniously crafted symbol of a beautiful ancient culture, and that, together, these exemplars of American goodness will slip into Plymouth Harbor to be greeted by Donald Trump.

The harvest feast isn’t over, though it is winding down. The pilgrims are cracking pilgrim jokes. They do a bit about John Winslow’s want of a wife, and another about how pottage of cabbage is a windy victual. Before the feast, I visited the gift shop, and bought a mug ($6.50). One side shows the Plimoth logo. The other states, “You can’t change history, but it could change you.” The museum’s official miscellany is clotted with similarly broad language: “Where curiosity becomes learning, questions become answers,” etc. There’s a lot of loose talk, it seems, about profundity, encounters with the past, and about the not entirely remote possibility that the museum will, in an afternoon, change you.

In 2020, exemplars of American goodness celebrating the 400th anniversary of the landing will slip into Plymouth Harbor to be greeted by Donald Trump.

“We,” Richard Pickering said, meaning America, “need to look backward if we’re going to go forward.” We need to study, he told me, moments in which our national experiment “actually worked.” Doing so, we can learn “behaviors that may make us capable of listening and speaking to each other again.” I didn’t tell him this at the time, but I disagree. History is not a tidy sequence of events, tidily unfurling in time, trailing behind it a tidy scroll of legible, ready-to-apply lessons. It is as vast and as complicated as life, which is to say it’s a mess.

One afternoon, Darius Coombs, a member of the Wampanoag Nation and a director at the museum who has worked there for 30 years, gave me a tour of the Homesite. By its entrance, he showed me a sign displaying a life-sized photograph of himself. “Do you have a picture in mind from movies or books of what ‘Indians’ look like?” the text of the sign asks, and then offers basic guidance on how not to cause offense. Darius told me that, about ten years ago, before the sign was installed, people often greeted him by saying, “How!” I think about Darius���s three decades helping to build and sustain the Homesite and the museum, and the mountains of cramped-minded nonsense he must have endured, and his abiding belief that he has an “obligation to help people understand and respect” Wampanoag history. I don’t think the purpose of history, or of a history museum, is to teach good behavior. I do think that studying history is, itself, good behavior, which might help us “to go forward,” whatever that might mean.

A woman wears a cloak made of skunk skins over her deerskin dress at the Wampanoag Homesite.

A woman wears a cloak made of skunk skins over her deerskin dress at the Wampanoag Homesite.

Bridget has returned to the mic. She leads us in a drinking song, and a love song, and then says she feels guilty that we haven’t done a religious song. She passes the mic to Susanna Winslow (d. unknown), who sings a version of Psalm 23 (gentle pastures, everlasting goodness). When she finishes, a few people at the back of the room launch into another song, one that I think might just be called “Amen,” because that’s the only lyric. For a moment, almost the whole room gets involved, repeating “amen” in a pattern of fast and slow cadences until everyone seems to realize it’s time to stop, and does. Then the feast is over, and we all leave the 17th century for the parking lot.

Kathryn Ness, the museum’s curator of collections, told me that during a dig in the ’70s, excavators from the museum unearthed a D battery, which now sits in Plimoth’s permanent collection of artifacts. As I understood it, the battery was deemed worthy of preservation because it might someday contribute to a deeper understanding of other artifacts, or might someday contribute to a deeper understanding of something else.

Ness also told me that the excavators of the 17th-century English settlement on the hill above the town center recently dug up a cell phone. When future archeologists excavate a future Plymouth, what will they find? If we could jump the Atlantic of years to that future, what would we find? About this, what does history teach? I think it teaches that we’d find something strange and unforeseeable and, to us — refugees of the land of the past — at least a little sad. An account from the early 17th-century reports that, in another part of New England, the first people to see a European ship mistook it for a “walking island.” They believed its mast was a tree, its sails clouds. A few rowed out to it, hoping it might be a place to pick strawberries. They turned back at the first cannon volley, which they thought was only thunder.

Michael Hare is a writer in Boston.