Decolonizing Museums: A Visit to the Tomaquag Museum

April 13, 2017

In June of 2016, the Wampum Trail research team visited the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. Our team consists of Project Director Dr. Margaret Bruchac and two graduate students in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, Lise Puyo and myself, as research assistants. Funding from the Penn Museum has enabled us to visit museums and indigenous communities over the past three years with the goal of decolonizing wampum research and recovering Indigenous knowledges in museum collections. Our methodology includes sustained communication with the Native communities with whom we work as we study wampum and wampum belts and attempt to recover object histories through archival research.

One area of research that interests me in particular is the display and care of wampum in museums. Wampum, in both the physical and philosophical form, represents Native sovereignty, relations, and cultural memory across generations. Wampum, therefore, represents everything that the settler colonial project attempted to take away from Indigenous communities. Museums arose out of and alongside the colonial project; decolonizing methodologies are key to the process of unpacking that history and revising museum practice to work for indigenous communities. Amy Lonetree suggests that recognizing “historical unresolved grief” is central to a decolonizing museum practice.[1] Instead of expressing victimhood, the act of recognizing Indigenous survivance empowers Native communities and facilitates revitalization efforts. Ruth Phillips calls this new paradigm “the second museum age,” summarized by Lonetree as follows: “this emerging vision makes museums more open and community-relevant sites, and a new museum theory and practice is developing alongside this work.”[2] Museums work toward decolonizing methodologies in different ways. One way to explore these efforts is by looking at how they display, interpret, and care for their collections.

Left to right, Kimberly Peters, Stephanie Mach, Lorén Spears, and Lise Puyo at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

While visiting the Tomaquag, I encountered a museum whose staff are actively working toward a decolonizing museum methodology and practice. In this post, I explore the ways in which the Tomaquag exemplifies an indigenous paradigm in their display of wampum, and through their collections management policies.

During our visit, Executive Director Lorén Spears, a member of the Narragansett nation, provided us with a tour of the museum gallery, which includes the exhibit Wampum: Telling Our Story. The exhibit focuses on historical and contemporary wampum-making and use by the Narragansett people of southern New England.[3]

This exhibit, made possible with funding from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, enabled the museum to hold a series of workshops for the community with the goal of creating a community wampum belt. Narragansett wampum artist Allen Hazard demonstrated how to shape and drill wampum discs, and workshop attendees were given the chance to process a wampum disc for the belt. Community members learned how difficult and rewarding the process of wampum-working can be, as only about 8 out of 45 discs were completed. In the finished piece, on display at the museum, six wampum discs are attached to a belt of deer hide, and small tubular wampum beads hang from the center of each wampum disc, representing the traditional tubular shape of wampum belt beads. Those beads—which are very difficult to make and too time consuming for a community workshop (the realities of museum education!)—were donated to the project by maker Allen Hazard.

Stephanie Mach and Lise Puyo listen to Lorén Spears, while studying the wampum exhibit at the Tomaquag Museum. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Lorén Spears also led a series of beading workshops, where community members created designs of significance to the Narragansett, including a strawberry representing the summertime Strawberry Thanksgiving festival, and a beaded version of the tribal seal of the Narraganset nation. The beadwork patches were attached to the hide in between each wampum disc. The combination of wampum and glass beads on this belt is intentional, representing the adoption of glass beads into wampum practice, and the syncretic nature of Narragansett cultural memory and identity-making. Many historic wampum belts contain a combination of shell and glass beads, in some cases reflecting the diminished production of shell wampum beads due to the loss of access to materials. Glass beads, like wampum, can embody meanings that they carry and transmit to future generations, but in some wampum scholarship, glass beads are often mistakenly characterized as less “indigenous.” This community belt celebrates glass beads as part of Narragansett identity, and thus celebrates Indigenous continuity and survivance.

Wampum: Telling Our Story directly addresses the common misconception that wampum is Indian money. The exhibit expresses significance far beyond the monetary by including the text “wampum is sacred” floating across the image of crashing sea waters, while a nearby text panel describes wampum as a gift from the Creator and a source of food for this coastal tribe. The exhibit text decolonizes the narrative of wampum, however, it is the entire exhibition process that exemplifies a decolonizing methodology. The exhibit was more than a product; it was a process through which wampum-making was revitalized and community members were empowered to contribute their own voices to the museum. As Spears explained it,“We are not making replicas. We are indigenous people making something today. You can call it contemporary if you want, but we are not making replicas. We are indigenous.”

Stephanie Mach, Lise Puyo, and Lorén Spears looking at the wampum belt made by Narragansett community members under the creative direction of Allen Hazard. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

First person voices are the central interpretive technique deployed at the Tomaquag Museum. The collection primarily comes from community members who have shared personal histories of the materials they donated. Docents are encouraged to personalize their tours with their own narratives. Each tour guide personally relates to the material culture on exhibit in different ways; for example, one guide might explain their family relation to the donor or describe a memory attached to one of the exhibits. Tomaquag tours are not scripted; they are first person narratives that invite a level of engagement between the museum and its audience that is rare and intimate.

After the gallery tour, we met Collections Manager Kimberly Peters, a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, and former Director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Peters is currently working on cataloging the entire collection and entering that information into the museum’s database. Peters is the first collections manager on staff at the Tomaquag, as all previous collections work had been project-based. Spears and Peters described the difficulties of working with a museum database that was created to record information about cultural collections from a historically colonialist perspective. For example, collections are often referred to as “objects,” whereas Spears prefers to identify them as “cultural materials.” At the Tomaquag, care is taken to think about the fields, descriptors, and categories provided in the database that might sound too scientific and “othering.” As Spears explained, “Rather than just to have an ethnographic interpretation of what those cultural materials (which is the word we prefer over objects or artifacts) were, and not only what they are per se, [we focus on] who we got them from, and what was the context.” Since the Tomaquag cares for cultural material from its own community, the Collections Committee feels that curatorial words to describe the collection should also come from the community.

Kimberly Peters shares community connections of a cane basket given to Eva Lutz Butler by Dr. Frank Speck in 1945. The basket was given to Princess Redwing (Narragansett) by Mrs. Butler for the museum. Both were friends of Frank Speck. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Each museum adjusts a database to work for its own collection, but the Tomaquag takes this project one step further by thinking critically about the colonizing language and structures embedded in the museum database and rewriting them to make them distinctly Narragansett. In this way, the Tomaquag has consciously appropriated the colonizer’s tools to work towards becoming indigenous. During this “second museum age,” the challenge of revising colonizing language and categories is an integral part of decolonizing museum methodologies.

In many museums, objects are displayed as general examples of cultural life; their personal histories are unknown or remain disconnected. At Tomaquag, the staff seek ways to communicate and integrate their collections with the community. Lorén Spears puts it this way: “This is our story. We are connected to all of these things. That canoe comes to life when someone knows that this canoe is not only a Narragansett canoe, but this canoe is directly connected to me…My grandfather, her great grandfather. That makes it real. That makes it authentic. It has a story.” The thoughtful and innovative work taking place at the Tomaquag does not go unrecognized; in 2016 the museum was awarded both an IMLS National Medal and an NEH Preservation Assistance Grant for collections preservation and care. I congratulate the Tomaquag Museum and look forward to revisiting again soon to learn more about the process of constructing an indigenous museum paradigm.

[1] Lonetree, Amy, 2012. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press). 5.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] The Narragansett nation is a federally recognized Indian tribe in Rhode Island. The Tomaquag Museum is an independently run non-profit organization, originally founded as the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum by Princess Red Wing (Narragansett/Wampanoag) in collaboration with anthropologist Eva Butler.

For more information:

Tomaquag Museum

On the Wampum Trail