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Pilgrim Hall Museum reopens with new emphasis on women

After a year’s shutdown because of the pandemic, Pilgrim Hall Museum reopened this month.
After a year’s shutdown because of the pandemic, Pilgrim Hall Museum reopened this month.Denise Maccaferri

Pilgrim Hall Museum is the oldest continuously operating public museum in the country, holding exhibits for half of the town’s 400-year history and offering what the museum terms “the world’s finest collection of early Plymouth possessions.”

After a year’s shutdown because of the pandemic, Pilgrim Hall reopened this month and is presenting an extensive new exhibit, titled “Pathfounders: Women of Plymouth,” that the museum says “resets the 400-year story of Plymouth with a focus on the lives and legacies of ‘pathfounding’ women.”

“Makers, nurturers, leaders, and survivors,” the museum states, “they made history, though their stories are often untold.”

Located at 75 Court St. in Plymouth Center, Pilgrim Hall is now open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Executive Director Donna Curtin said the museum expects to add more days during summer and fall. Visitors can reserve a time to visit by buying a ticket at pilgrimhall.org.

The “Pathfounders” exhibit encompasses an ambitious range of timelines and subjects, including “17th century survivors,” “18th century visionaries,” and “activists of the 19th century and leaders of the 20th century,” depicted through the museum’s extensive collection of historical artifacts and by newly created interactive multimedia displays. The show includes new films created by SmokeSygnals, a Wampanoag-owned production company.

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Linda Coombs portrays Native sachem Awashonks of Sakonnet as part of a new exhibit at Pilgrim Hall Museum titled "Pathfounders: Women of Plymouth."
Linda Coombs portrays Native sachem Awashonks of Sakonnet as part of a new exhibit at Pilgrim Hall Museum titled "Pathfounders: Women of Plymouth." Jay Kubesch

The subjects of the new exhibit include the women of the English colony, described as “immigrants, conduits of family and custom,” and Wampanoag women who were “cultivators, culture bearers, and clan leaders working to uphold a way of life threatened by incursion.”

Among the Wampanoag women featured in the new show is the wife of Hobbamock, who lived with the English settlers in Plymouth during their first year to help them survive. Although she was mentioned in early Colonial records, her name has not survived. Others include Awashonks, sachem of a bordering tribe; and 19th-century Native rights activist Zerviah Gould Mitchell (1807-1898), a descendant of the Wampanoag chief Ousamequin, also called Massasoit, a sachem who made an early friendship treaty with the Pilgrim colony.

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New offerings on the women of the Plymouth colony include biographical film shorts on five teenage English girls, including three orphaned soon after the Mayflower’s arrival: Mary Chilton, Priscilla Mullins, and Elizabeth Tilley.

Among 18th-century figures, Mary Otis Warren, a supporter of the American Revolution and one of its first published historians, is represented in the exhibit by a pair of mourning bracelets, made from locks of her hair and that of her husband, James Warren. The exhibit also displays the indenture of the Native woman Alice Sachemus to the Otis family. Native women, visitors learn, were often indentured for debt.

Another biographical panel describes the life of Hester Winslow Watson, who is believed to have been brought to America as a captive. Some 75 percent of Black New Englanders in the 18th century, the museum states, were born in Africa.

Edith Leaver portrays Mayflower passenger Mary Chilton as part of a new exhibition at Pilgrim Hall titled "Pathfounders: Women of Plymouth."
Edith Leaver portrays Mayflower passenger Mary Chilton as part of a new exhibition at Pilgrim Hall titled "Pathfounders: Women of Plymouth." Lise King

Among 19th-century Plymouth women, the life of Abby Morton Diaz, abolitionist, working mother, and advocate for women’s rights is represented by a family photograph album. Also on display is a printed anti-slavery emblem of a kneeling slave in chains, used by Diaz and other female activists in Plymouth to decorate paper boxes for collecting donations to the abolitionist cause.

The exhibit also highlights the 19th-century activist Dr. Nellie Pierce, who helped found Plymouth’s first hospital.

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Among the many historical items on display is the Brewster Book Manuscript, a volume of blank pages used for handwritten notes. Historians, Curtin said, now believe the notes in the book were not written by Pilgrim Elder William Brewster, but by fellow Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow, who wrote of the importance of women to the new colony. His script states (in period spellings) that women are “so necessary for a plantation that no man can forget them or be well without them.”

Curtin said being closed by the pandemic created opportunities for an old institution to modernize.

“Before COVID, we still actually used an old-fashioned cash register at our front desk,” she said. “Now we have an online ticketing system that’s very easy to access. More importantly, we’ve learned how essential it is to be involved in our communities. We wouldn’t have survived the long closure without the amazing support of members, friends, and the local community.”

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.