Contemplating the Void: Peopling the Past in Living History Museums – Lise Puyo

July 26, 2016

Every year the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

Report from the field by LISE PUYO.

With support from the Penn Museum and the Anthropology Department, I embarked on this season’s field research with the “Wampum Trail” project, pursuing the survey of museums and collections that the team began in 2014.[1] This year on the Wampum Trail, we traveled to several historic sites that are significant to both Indigenous and colonial nations in America. As we perused the displays at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts; the Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan in Victor, New York; the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Ledyard, Connecticut; and the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center in Liverpool, New York, I was struck by the many strategies deployed to connect visitors with local histories.

Listening to a colonial interpreter in the recreated 17th century English village at Plimoth Plantation. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.
Listening to a colonial interpreter in the recreated 17th century English village at the museum called Plimoth Plantation. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The Place Where History Happened

During our visits, I was curious to see how the early colonial period was interpreted and memorialized in these sites. Coming from France, where many buildings from the 17th century have been preserved, I was expecting to see an emphasis on space, with strong narratives starting with: “this is the place where this event happened.” I soon realized that, due to troubled histories and perishable materials in these specific locales, few buildings or highly visible features of the past had been retained. How to memorialize a space when none of the original architecture remains?

The museums we visited go beyond mere roadside plaques, striving instead for a reconstitution of historically accurate, life-scale models of period buildings. Extensive research on earlier technologies addresses the obvious problem of the buildings’ authenticity. In the practice of historical reconstruction, every single detail necessitates questions and explanations. What tools are appropriate to use? What techniques? What materials? According to the museum and historic site personnel we met along the Wampum Trail, it is no longer enough to vaguely evoke the atmosphere of an era: to be fair to the public that came to learn about the past, each museum bears a responsibility to provide an image that is as close to the original as the current state of historical knowledge permits.

Ganondagan, New York, is the historic site of a Seneca community that was burned to the ground by a French expedition in 1687. Now the site is memorialized through the Seneca Art & Culture Center, comprising two contemporary structures: a museum building and a Seneca bark longhouse. The former reflects contemporary technologies and design, while the latter was erected using traditional Indigenous technologies with reinforcements to stabilize the building, ensuring that it will last for far more than the 15 or so years a longhouse would usually take to decay.

On the left, the sleek and cutting edge museum building at the Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan. On the right, the Seneca bark longhouse. Photo by Stephanie Mach.
On the left, the sleek and cutting edge museum building at the Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan. On the right, the Seneca bark longhouse. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Both structures entangle the past and present: the museum houses archaeological material from the site, displayed behind glass. The longhouse provides a sensory experience of a 17th-century Seneca household. Many objects similar to the ones on display in the museum gallery are reproduced in the longhouse to illustrate how they would have been utilized in context. This space supports the visitor’s imagination to connect all the objects on display in a coherent environment. I perceived this as an attempt to de-fetishize the museum display, where artifacts are methodically separated, classified and labeled in well-lit glass boxes. In the longhouse, these objects are re-inscribed in the context of daily life; all kinds of tools, trade goods, pots, furs, snowshoes, and weapons intermingle, as if they had just been set down by a Seneca family. This reconstructed space does not fixate on the 1687 raid, but rather commemorates the balanced lifestyle that existed before. It allows visitors to reflect upon Native social organization through the senses and affects, after learning about it on a dispassionate level in the museum gallery.

At Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, there seem to be two streams of remembrance running side by side. The Wampanoag program at Hobbamock’s Homesite also features traditional Indigenous architecture. Wampanoag interpreters wearing 17th-century clothing spend their days around the bark and sapling wigwams (wetus) in a small homesite by the Eel River, demonstrating Native horticulture, cooking, and technologies (weaving nets, burning dugout canoes, building homes, etc.).

Native interpreters farming on the Wampanoag side of the Plimoth Plantation. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.
Native interpreters tending corn on the Wampanoag side of the Plimoth Plantation. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, lies a much larger colonial settler village with wooden plank houses, barns, livestock, and gardens, where similar activities are performed by Euro-American interpreters in 1620s garments. It seems like the strategy here is to recreate a sense of space secluded from contemporary Plymouth, using the same landscape where the encounter between English colonists and Wampanoag people took place to immerse the visitor in a different time. The path to the Wampanoag Homesite meanders through thick vegetation, where large stones provide a place to sit and reflect on this journey through time. The colonial site is marked off both spatially and temporally by a series of fences. To reach this site, one must descend a long, straight path overlooking the village—an approach that is perhaps conceived to build the visitor’s anticipation. Here, the memorial space is treated more like a theatrical stage where perhaps the most educational aspect of the main attraction resides in the interpreters’ performance rather than in the space itself.

Tourists approach the English village site at Plimoth Plantation. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.
Tourists approach the English village site at Plimoth Plantation. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Hearing Voices

I have always thought of interpretation as the voices of the present speaking about the past. The colonial side of Plimoth Plantation, however, attempts to cultivate the experience of the past reaching out to talk to you. Visitors are expected to learn through an immersive experience in the 1620s, listening to interpreters speaking from the perspective of their characters, as “Pilgrims” living on the plantation. Each individual has a developed and detailed backstory and biography, and the interpreters like to talk about the relationships among the characters on the plantation. The idea is that the 1620s are talking to you in the first person.

To me, this approach felt extremely exotic and unsettling, going against the sort of historical commemorations to which I am accustomed. In France, a suitable portion of original architecture, furniture, and other memorabilia is retained and, in most cases, the stones have seen the people from the past, the stairs have slouched where their feet used to step (see, for example, the photo taken at the royal Château de Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, in France). People left behind tangible proof of their bygone presence; it is a powerful feeling to notice these traces and to build on them to reflect on the past. Those people are gone, and in their place, now, there is a deafening silence that you, as a visitor, have to bridge and to contemplate.

Slouched stairs at Chambord. Photo by Jean Puyo.
Slouched stairs at Chambord. Photo by Jean Puyo.

This spectacle is profound and grave. This immense void can be filled with what you already know or project onto history. Being able to feel the absence of the people who used to occupy this space suggests that you already know who they were and what they were doing there, as you can see what they left behind, like shells on the shore. This experience entails an intimate, personal construction of the past, and the solemnity of the space encourages proceeding with respect and humility. This silence can be crushing, overwhelming. It is part of what people look for when they visit Versailles or the monumental cathedrals of my home country. Perhaps that reverence towards a silent past is also something that surreptitiously came from religious architecture. In a Catholic mindset, the Holy Ghost is in the cathedral, but you will not connect with it unless you find it within yourself. The monumental architecture, the silence of the churches, the overwhelming beauty and gravitas that surrounds you…all was conceived and constructed to elicit this emotional encounter. This kind of experience is very similar to museum practices and the memorial relationship to historic sites in France. When any interpretation occurs, it is always from a contemporary perspective, a voice talking about the past, sometimes even talking to the past, but only getting silence in return.

This might explain why I felt uneasy on the colonial side of Plimoth Plantation. I felt there was a pretended past that thought it could talk to me and give me unsolicited information about itself. I came to contemplate a space of void and silence; instead I heard forced accents and theatrical stories of tenants working for their landlords or husbands transporting dried flowers because their wives told them to. Interestingly, I heard little to nothing about the Native people whose assistance made the English inhabitation of Plimoth possible.

Curated Voids

At Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center in Liverpool, New York, the installation is interestingly comparable to Ganondagan. It features a contemporary building in design and construction, housing a newly renovated cultural and historical center presenting an Onondaga perspective on the creation of the world, traditional lifestyles, colonization, and residential schools. Through video installations and interactive screens, it tackles concepts such as sovereignty and cultural recovery. The center is located on the lands where the French Jesuits settled the mission of Sainte-Marie de Gannentaha in the 17th century.

In the 20th century, the State of New York built an historical reconstruction of a few buildings evoking the original mission village. When the Skä•noñh Center moved into the site, they decided to keep the reconstructed mission intact. This site is somewhat separated from the rest of the exhibit, but presented—to my mind at least—in a very dramatic way. To reach this life-size reconstruction, the visitor must walk through a corridor displaying texts and documents introducing the history and motivations for this mission. Those labels present the entanglement between the Catholic faith and France’s colonial strategy in North America. The corridor leads to a path outside, leaving the exhibition building to walk towards a palisade enclosing three wooden houses.

The reconstructed mission of Sainte-Marie de Gannentaha at the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center. Photo by Lise Puyo.
The reconstructed mission of Sainte-Marie de Gannentaha at the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center. Photo by Lise Puyo.

Perhaps it was the fact that my advisor and I were the last visitors, or that it was getting close to sunset, or that the tall wildflowers conveyed a sense of abandonment, but I was struck by the deafening silence around the foreboding cross. The echoes of a complex and painful past were emanating from the vacant church building. Perhaps it moved me because I have read the Jesuit Relations[2] with their countless reports of deaths and cultural misunderstandings; because I know about the “Black Robes” and their obsession with pain and power; because I have listened to moving stories of love, friendship, and conversion in deeply troubled times. It was such a solemn space that my advisor and I felt compelled to whisper although we were the only ones there, surrounded by the austere appearance of a wooden chapel with the ominous IHS[3] engraved on the wide doors behind the tall, stark cross.

It was such a sharp and surprising contrast with the Jesuit architecture I had previously experienced. We were miles away from the extravagant wealth of the Saint Paul church in Paris (an example of what a preserved 17th-century Jesuit church could look like), and this wooden chapel evoked the terrifying determination of the missionaries at the other end of the world. Previous knowledge allowed me to fill the void with all the complexity: the good, the bad, and the ugly of these cultural encounters. The labels and cardboard figures on the mission site felt antiquated, standing in contrast with the rest of the center presenting an Onondaga perspective. The chilling heritage of the relations between missionaries and Indigenous people is not an easy topic to cover, and was largely avoided by those labels. Despite that, the reconstructed Sainte-Marie mission is a very effective device to address this painful memory. The feeling of an abandoned place produced the same sense of void and silence that brings you to contemplate history on a highly emotional level.

Perhaps it was merely accidental that we saw those buildings with no animation or reenactment of any kind, but it left sufficient space and silence to think about history. The Sainte-Marie mission felt like a curated void: a contemplative pause that enables one to reflect upon the past, before focusing on contemporary Onondaga people, their survival, and recovery.

The Politics of Peopling the Past

On the Wampanoag side of Plimoth Plantation, interpreters’ explanations were anchored in the present: they performed in historical garb but not in character. They would talk about their ancestors without acting like visitors from the past. This approach can be an effective means of challenging visitors’ stereotypes. Too often, Native Americans are denied what Johannes Fabian calls “coevalness,” the ability to share a present with Europeans.[4] Speaking from a 17th-century perspective could convey the idea that Indigenous peoples are stuck in the past and cannot exist in modern times.

Yet, at the same time, Indigenous peoples have had to struggle against the exact stereotype that they have no connection to the past: that their cultures were irretrievably lost and that they are no longer distinct from mainstream American society. This assimilationist narrative goes hand in hand with the first one, as both suggest that the “authentic Native” lives in the past. At living history museums, it seems that interpreters must perform a complex dance to address and challenge these troubling and false views.[5]

At the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, we visited a 17th-century encampment featuring reenactors demonstrating crafts and traditional games. For the Indigenous performers, who were speaking from their personal, contemporary point of view, donning the clothes of their ancestors in this venue was a way to demonstrate that traditional technologies had not been lost. Being able to put together such an outfit and paraphernalia reflects a phenomenal knowledge of one’s own culture, history, and technologies. These reenactors educate the public and work to change mainstream representations through their performance and productions, embodying cultural continuity. But they were not stuck in the past; the same individuals who could drill shell with a 17th-century bow drill could make contemporary wampum jewelry using electric drills and metal finishing tools.

Caption: Dioramas inside, and living history outside, at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. Photo by Lise Puyo.
Dioramas inside, and living history outside, at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. Photo by Lise Puyo.

Looking at the transition from the sculptures inside the Mashantucket Pequot Museum to the living history camp outside, I came to realize that, once again, the commemorative approach of this site was profoundly different from the way the past is memorialized in French museums and historic sites. In the museum installations, very realistic sculpted bodies, with silky hair, expressive faces, and reconstructed period garb engage in a cordial exchange. In one scene, a woman receives a goose for cooking; in another, men gather to exchange wampum and beaver furs. The clothing, whether worn by reenactors or sculpted models, is inhabited.

When historical garments are exhibited in France, they are usually displayed floating in the void, as empty shells left behind by the person who used to wear them. This is the topic of an entire exhibition at Palais Galliera Museum, displaying significant garments worn by both famous and anonymous individuals. The setting features faceless mannequins and abstract silhouettes. In most French museums, there seems to be almost a disdain for straightforward, explicit attempts to reconstruct or give faces to the people of the past. Period rooms are extremely common, but dioramas remain rare. With this background, the Pequot Museum made me wonder: why insist so much on peopling the past by adding faces where I’ve always thought it was more powerful to show an absence?

The pervasive stereotype of Native American extinction and disappearance perhaps starts to explain why the signs of presence are multiplied throughout the galleries. The Mashantucket Pequot Museum displays are reclaiming a space that was taken away. The exhibitions put the emphasis on a continuous presence to counter narratives of the “vanishing Native.” Those sculptures are a contemporary take on the past, using the faces of contemporary individuals, entangling past and present in complex ways. These dioramas (a long contested form of display) no longer feel like an avatar of human taxidermy, fixing living peoples in stereotypes, but rather like an attempt to take back one’s own representation, proving strong links to the past.

The impressive Caribou hunt scene, for example, features dozens of human and animal figures engaged in a highly collaborative, significant and vital activity. The Pequot Village is such a large installation, with so many activities depicted with minute details, that it would require a whole afternoon (or more) to fully explore it. These monumental sculptures memorialize perhaps idealized notions, but they display cohesive and complex communities, and convey Indigenous rather than colonial ideals. This curatorial choice addresses stereotypes by reclaiming bodies and faces that were previously visible only as colonized. It also prevents visitors from filling the void with inaccurate or harmful preconceived notions. Strategies that felt somewhat forced on the colonial side of Plimoth somehow made more sense in an Indigenous museum, when envisioned as a political gesture—a reminder of the importance of examining who is issuing these representations and why.

Listening to Talia, an interpreter on the Wampanoag side of Plimoth Plantation. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.
Listening to an interpreter on the Wampanoag side of Plimoth Plantation. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

In the process of visiting these museums, I came to understand that my own preference to engage with the past on an emotional level was shaped by a dominating society. “Contemplating the void” is what it feels like, but this void is not truly empty. It is filled with acquired knowledge and inherited pride (or shame) transmitted via a sense of kinship and learned strategies to notice and appreciate the traces of past grandeur. The continuous, unchallenged presence of European peoples in the sites they had long inhabited had enabled me to relish this sense of absence. My initial reluctance towards living history museums came from the idea that they would try to bring me into a fiction that would be less powerful than the one I had created in my mind. I realized that some narratives bear a message that is more potent than my fancy for “contemplating the void.” My experiences in these museums taught me that some voids need to be filled with more accurate, more respectful, and more complex representations, in spaces where Indigenous voices have been removed for too long. Some pasts need a stronger presence than others.


[1] For previous reports from the Wampum Trail team, see “Wampum Research: Notes From the Trail 2014-2015.” Each museum has unique protocols regarding the care of its wampum collections (see Stephanie Mach’s insights), as well as a specific philosophy for displaying Native American history and cultural materials. Also see the Wampum Trail Research Blog and Wampum Trail Facebook page for reports on research discoveries and travels.

[2] The Jesuit Relations are a collection of letters sent from the missions in North America to French ecclesiastical authorities and patrons. They count as one of the most precious collections of ethnographic documents from the 17th and 18th centuries, although the biases they convey can sometimes make them problematic to use at face-value. See Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610—1791. Cleveland, OH: The Burrows Brothers Company.

[3] The letters IHS, as used by the Jesuit missionaries, reflect the first three letters of the name of Jesus spelled in Latin: IHSOUS (or ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in Greek), pronounced iēsous. These letters appeared on Jesuit churches in New France and on copper rings given out to Native American converts to mark their adoption of the Catholic faith (which often required renouncing their Indigenous beliefs).

[4] Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

[5] For more information on these challenges, and the strategies devised for the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plimoth Plantation, see the writings of former WIP Associate Director Linda Coombs, “Holistic History: Including the Wampanoag in an Exhibit at Plimoth Plantation,” originally published in Plimoth Life 1(2) 2002:12-15, and recently reprinted in Siobhan Senier, ed. 2014. Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.