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On the Edge of the New World

Image: Plimoth Plantation

Plimoth Plantation

Alan Villiers sailed a full-size replica of the ship Mayflower from England to New England in 1957.  In the same year, building had begun on Plimoth Plantation, a representation of the village set up by the Mayflower colonists.

The town was named for the last place the settlers had seen in England in 1620.  Spelling was not standardised then.  The Plantation version was one of several used at the time and distinguished it from the name of the modern city close by.  The Mayflower is moored alongside the State Pier there.

Plimoth Plantation fulfilled the vision of ‘Harry’ Hornblower II who had spent boyhood holidays in Massachusetts.  He became fascinated with the stories of the Pilgrim Fathers and the symbolic landing point they were supposed to have first stepped onto – the ‘Plymouth Rock’.  There is no documentary evidence to support the claim, and, in fact, the settlers actually made landfall near the tip of Cape Cod close to modern Provincetown.  They made their first permanent homes within a couple of hundred metres of where the Rock sits under a classical canopy dating from 1920.

Hornblower opened a ‘first house’ representation on the waterfront in 1949, adding a second house and then a fort/meeting house soon after.  In 1956, his family provided the land for the present village reconstruction, where building began the following year.  The fort was moved there.  It now acts as the main entrance to the colonists’ village project, with many houses with their backyards, workshops and fields with sheep, cattle and goats.

Native ‘wigwams’ were set up in 1964.  Costumed guides described life in the colony and the ways in which the houses had been furnished with antiques.  Mannequins were placed to represent the inhabitants.  It depicted the village as it might have been in 1627 when it really stood where the city is today.

In the late 1970s, staff began to try out techniques that had been established in other US museums such as Old Sturbridge, also in Massachusetts, and a few places in Britain.  This was First Person Interpretation.  They adopted well-researched roles based on real historical people, their lives and characters.  Visitors found themselves being greeted as if they were seventeenth century travellers.  Careful training by linguistic specialists prepared them to use one of seventeen local or regional English dialects with appropriate vocabulary.  Meticulous preparation allowed them to deal with questions about village life and the culture of the colony.  Suitable ways of responding to visitors who referred to twentieth century features such as fridges or automobiles were devised.  These glossed over such things by saying something like “you will have your new devices; we have to make use of what we can”.

In the late 1960s, a crucial development began to appear.  People from the nearby Native American community, the Wampanoag, were drawn in to operate a ‘summer camp’ Native Village alongside the Pilgrim Village.  It gradually established close to the settlers’ homes but with its distinct style and culture.  Wampanoag huts, crops and craftwork were placed on view and in the hands of Native peoples.  The route in to the main village from the museum entrance runs through the Wampanoag site, taking visitors in the correct historical stages of Native America being followed by settlers arriving from England.

Other museums have had to move away from the white European view of the United States.  Black slave history is the subject of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre in Cincinnati.  The Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston has been restoring slave huts for visitors to see.  Native American life and culture is so far on show in small centres and archaeological sites.  But Colonial Williamsburg, an important museum and town in Virginia with key War of Independence connections, has been building up the depiction of black history slowly over some decades.  Sited in a prominent slave state the role of black people was central to life in Williamsburg.  The problem has been twofold.  As a museum devoted to the mid-eighteenth century, it has to have black folk shown in slave and servant roles, which can reinforce a status that is no longer acceptable.  At the same time, at least in the 1950s and 60s, the museum could only go so far in placing black people in more important staff positions as some whites opposed such moves.

Plimoth Plantation now gives more stress to the use of the Native American name of Patuxet, while still referring to Plymouth as the nearby modern community.  The terms ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ and ‘Mayflower settlement’ are played down while the phrase ‘English Village’ has been adopted.  Polite information panels request visitors not to employ out of date Hollywood vocabularies such as ‘red indian’ or ‘war whoop’ when talking with the Wampanoag staff.

How ‘living history’ attractions present history is fraught with problems of accuracy, disputed implications and sanitisation of social and environmental conditions.  The need to raise money for charitable foundations to survive is central to their function but can be loaded with controversy.  But there is no doubt that many successful moves have been made, even if they sometimes have only edged towards improvements.


Image: The JFK Library

JFK: On the Edge of the TV Age

The John F Kennedy Library stands overlooking Boston Harbour.  Eleven US Presidents since Herbert Hoover have libraries dedicated to them.  They house archive materials relating to their life and times and their periods in office.  The collection from the Kennedy years is accompanied by a visitor centre open at a small charge to anyone wishing to see it.  The Library exists for research and debate about JFK’s achievements and failures alike.  On the day we were there, sat eating sandwiches by the small cafe, Dave suddenly noticed Laura Bush walk past with a group of people.  She is the wife of President George W Bush.  They have a summerhouse – actually a whole compound full of them – at Kennebunkport, further up the New England Coast.  When we left, we saw the small motorcade that carried her, parked outside.  Two State Troopers wandered around.  They looked pretty much of pensionable age.  Well, she wasn’t the President.

The exhibition on JFK begins with an audio-visual theatre presentation.  It tells of his life up to his election as President.  The first part of the exhibition sets the scene of home life in the USA at the time through a display of domestic goods in which a TV set is prominent.  His early days were shown in the theatre show: like all modern US Presidents he came from a wealthy background with brothers Robert and Ted also moving into politics.  Marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier brought a new element of glamour that helped his image on TV.  Since television was increasingly important in 1950s political campaigning, this was important.


The exhibition has three main themes.  The first is the role of TV in helping his elections, in channelling his political campaigns and in publicising issues of the day, notably the position of black peoples in the USA.  The second is about the image of the Presidency, with Jackie Kennedy’s attractive style and life in the White House playing a glossy part.  The phrase of the time about the Court of a modern Camelot comes to mind, playing up the near-regal aspect of the Kennedys along with their perceived youthful, idealistic character.  It was not a description that survived, untarnished, in the years following his assassination.  Third in the set of themes is that of his successes and failures in international politics such as the Bay of Pigs debacle and the Cuban missile crisis, and in domestic affairs, notably in connection with the moves towards the ending of racial segregation.

How visitors react to the exhibition depends, of course, largely on their ages.  As someone who lived through those years my response had more personal elements, having seen Walter Cronkite in near-tears announcing Kennedy’s death in Dallas, and remembered the missile standoff against the USSR the previous year.  Incidentally, the tragedy of the assassination is played low-key.  A darkened corridor with a few TV monitors tells the story through news clips, and that is about all.  My son and daughter-in-law knew their history, having been mainly educated in the USA and living there for many years.  Simon, their nine year old, probably related best to the tableau showing TV studios, control desks and the White House’s Oval Office rigged for TV the broadcasts by which Kennedy excelled.  The rest was more likely distant history.  It would have to be understood better in later life.

The iron furnaces of Saugus seen later in the day were much more immediately exciting.


Image: Saugus Iron Works

Saugus Iron Works

As we arrived at one of the USA’s most important industrial sites, the heavens opened.

Ominous black clouds delivered the torrential rain they had been promising.  Our small family group scattered into the shelter of whichever building looked dry and interesting enough for the duration.  Dave and Tara ran for the visitor centre with Simon.  James vanished somewhere.  I made it to a large wooden building with a water wheel strapped to its side that looked particularly promising.

It was naturally dark as a replicated seventeenth-century iron works.  The lashing rain made it even darker.  One side was open, looking out over a narrow arm of water that connected with the sea somewhere distant.  Rain dripped down through some gaps in the roof.  Drying my glasses and peering around a little out of focus showed me a huge trip hammer to the left.  On the right was a welcome glow from a charcoal fire.  It took a few moments to locate one of the National Parks guides sitting in front of a giant leather bellows contraption behind the fire.  The threat of rain had kept visitors away so there was no one to be shown around just then.  It would be a bonus for us as we were to have exclusive access to Kate Bittenden’s wealth of knowledge - and blacksmithing skills - for the next hour.

It was late July 2012.  We had rented a house near to Cape Cod for a week, reuniting a dozen people aged from 8 months to grandparents.  They live in the USA and England but try to get together every couple of years as a large gathering.  As often happens, not everyone can make it – a full complement could be at least twice as many.  Visiting places with historical and landscape interest such as coast or countryside, shopping and eating out are all on the bucket list.  Having everyone together round the breakfast and dinner table is one of the delights.  Excursions to places of interest may occupy one devotee or everyone.

If there was a common theme to the Massachusetts trip, it might be called ‘On the Edge’ – landmark locations associated with key events or giving views of unfamiliar worlds.  Whale watching was a good example of the latter this July.

I had been hankering to see Saugus for over thirty years since working at the Ironbridge Museum with the iron furnaces that fed the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century.  Saugus was an older museum-type project and celebrates an older, though briefer, industrial age with barely a toehold on the edge of North America.  So the opportunity to go first to the JFK Library south of Boston downtown and Saugus in the afternoon was irresistible.

What a difference between the two.  How would 9-year old Simon react to them?  He spent quite a bit of time following the narrative, with his mum helping along the way.  The Kennedy era ended ten years before Tara was born, so there were no first-hand recollections from her either.  The next posting will be about the John F Kennedy story as told by the Library exhibition.

Saugus was more fun in most ways.  Actually sited in a place called Hammersmith, on the Saugus River, it was almost the first iron-making site in the fledgling American colonies.  It had blown-in its smelter in 1646.  Such a long way from its backers in England and the skills of iron making that the old country enjoyed, it struggled financially and closed for good twenty-two years later.  But the need for iron goods in the colonies led to many other furnaces and forges being established.  Their success made the English government distinctly uneasy since it saw the colonies as sources of raw materials for Britain to make into manufactured goods.  American needs for iron should have been met by buying from Britain.  For the settlers it meant greater expense, much wasted time and unnecessary communications.  The iron makers on that side of the Atlantic were among the first to chafe at the bit of colonial rule.

Soon after World War II, the American Iron and Steel Institute organised the excavation of the Hammersmith works.  In the early 1950s, there were no conservation rules to prevent the next step.  This was to replicate the ironworks structures on the remaining foundations of each original, as it was uncovered.  Later, such a project would have had to have been carried out somewhere close by so as not to prevent any further archaeological exploration.

Now, it is possible to follow all the stages of making iron goods from ore to item.  In the general view above (photographed as that rain began to clear) the blast furnace is on the left.  Out of sight is the water wheel that powered the bellows putting the blast into the furnace in order to reach the smelting point of the ore.  The wooden bridge is visible across which men pushed barrows of iron ore, charcoal and gabbro in order to tip them into the open furnace top, a dangerous and dirty job.  Gabbro was used here in place of limestone as a flux to aid the smelting process.  Iron would be cast into channels in sand in front of the furnace.  When cooled to a solid it was hauled away to be used as required in the next building, the one with the taller, white, chimney.  This building is also seen in the right-hand photo with James investigated to water wheels set into motion by our guide, Kate.  One operated another set of bellows to fire the forge seen burning above.  Iron bars heated in the fire would be swung under the quarter-ton head of a huge hammer lifted and then released by another water-powered mechanism to beat the metal repeatedly.  The iron would be reheated, hammered out and folded many times.  The wrought metal was more malleable then. 

It was taken next to the rolling and slitting mill – building number 3 with the smaller, white, chimney in the middle of the general photo.  More of the works’ seven water wheels operated rollers and cutters able to turn the bars into different seized billets or rods.  These might be sold to blacksmiths for their own use or taken to the Saugus smithy close by.  This was the final part of our tour.  Here, Kate Bittenden donned a leather apron, heated up the smithy fire and cut and shaped nails from some of the iron rods.  Simon is proudly showing one made as he watched.  It was cut to length, a point hammered at one end and a crude head beaten at the other.  Hundreds would have been made every day.  And it was quite a surprise to Simon, with several years of schooling ahead of him, to learn that in the mid sixteenth century he could already have been working at a forge for a year by the age of nine.


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