Plymouth, Massachusetts: Pilgrim Hall Museum

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Although I honestly wasn’t planning it this way, I seem to have written this post just in time for Thanksgiving, so consider it my holiday offering.  Happy Thanksgiving!  When we were on our American roadtrip, my boyfriend, despite being British, was for some reason keen to see one of the most iconically American objects: Plymouth Rock (even though it is just some random rock that they’ve stuck in a cage and loaded down with symbolism).  Honestly, being a cynical type with little respect for totemic objects (certainly not ones with no basis in fact), I was less enthused, but went along for the ride, as I’d never been to Plymouth before either.  As predicted, the rock was a total bust, and I wasn’t about to pay to go on the replica Mayflower, so we were ready to cut our losses and leave when I spotted a sign advertising the Pilgrim Hall Museum, which assured me I could “touch a piece of Plymouth Rock.”  Well, forget everything I just said about not caring about the rock, because I’m not a monster…of course I wanted to touch it!  We hastily made our way over to the museum to see if it lived up to its promises, or if it was a load of tommyrot (yeah, I’m bringing tommyrot back, I think it’s time).

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It was surprisingly expensive, coming in at $8 each, but it is the oldest continually operating museum in America (as Google has informed me), so I guess they’re trying to ensure funding for its continued operation.  The gentleman at the admissions desk gave us an overly detailed overview of the museum (he was basically addressing us as though we were 5 years old and had never visited a museum before), and made a stab at humour with some weird, slightly sexist comment about how my boyfriend would have to steer me away from the gift shop to look at the museum (because obviously souvenir tea towels are better than history?), which was kind of bizarre, but he was pretty old so I let it slide.  There was a temporary exhibition on about the tourist trade in Plymouth, showcasing souvenirs through the centuries.  A lot of them related to a supposed love triangle between Myles Standish, Priscilla Mullins, and John Alden (John and Priscilla dolls, woot!) or were slightly boring looking history games that I would admittedly totally buy and play if they were still available. Lots of platters and other tat too, really, nothing too remarkable here.

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We then progressed downstairs, where we were instructed in no uncertain terms by the desk man to watch the video before doing anything else, so we obligingly plopped ourselves down for the show, which was a history of the Pilgrims.  To be fair, although I read William Bradford‘s writings in both high school English and some Early American Literature class I took as an undergrad, I hadn’t really learned much about the Pilgrims since grade school, so some of the basic facts about them had somehow escaped my notice.  For example, I had no idea they came from Scrooby (or where Scrooby was, for that matter.  Turns out it’s in Nottinghamshire and is tiny), and although I’d certainly heard of Myles Standish, I also didn’t know about the aforementioned love triangle (I guess we were too busy in elementary school re-enacting the Victorian idea of the first Thanksgiving with crudely made, historically inaccurate Pilgrim hats and “Indian” headdresses, to learn about anything even vaguely sordid.  Because I was in no way cool, I always got stuck being a lame Pilgrim, in a gross white paper bonnet.  Not that I’m salty about it or anything).  I was kind of eager for the video to finish so I could examine the objects in the case at the end of the room, which proved to be gen-u-ine Pilgrim possessions, including a cradle that was actually carried over on the Mayflower.  Despite making it clear that I don’t buy into the whole Pilgrim mythology (and seriously, screw the Puritan work-ethic – I enjoy being lazy, and two weeks of holiday is really not sufficient (not that I’ve ever had a full-time job, but still)), seeing some of the first surviving European artefacts brought to America was the bee’s knees.

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I actually did enjoy the downstairs galleries quite a lot, maybe because, like I said, I’m not particularly well-versed on the Pilgrims, outside of William Bradford and King Philip’s War et al, so it was interesting learning more about their quotidian lives.  There were a surprising amount of original documents and charters in their collection, as well as surviving furniture and whatnot (though not actual whatnots, like the one the Ingallses build with Mrs. Boast in By the Shores of Silver Lake), and I made sure to plunk myself down in the replica of the Bradford chair.

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Going back upstairs, I somehow managed to restrain myself from running straight into the gift shop (jeez), and instead took time to peruse the collection of paintings, mostly Victorian (as that was when the Pilgrim mystique really started to take hold), portraying the early years of the Plymouth settlement.  There was a fascinating display in the middle of the room that showed the evolution of our ideas on what the Pilgrims actually wore – the early Victorian paintings tended to portray them clad in sumptuous fabrics, outfits far more suited to the wealthy, and the late Victorian portrayal went to opposite extremes, with the weird buckle outfits and hats that we all know so well (exactly like the ones I was describing earlier that we were forced to construct from paper every November), because what better to accent your decidedly austere and drab clothing than a big shiny gold buckle?  The modern conception is probably more historically accurate, (or so we think), and shows them wearing normal 17th century clothes for poor-to-middling folk.  It was also here that they were hiding the chunk of Plymouth Rock, and you better believe I touched the hell out of it.  Mmmmm, rocky.

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Finally, we did head over to the gift shop, which was just fine, but seriously, not anything I would skip a museum to go see.  In spite of the slightly odd welcome, I’m glad we did find this museum, because it made the trip to Plymouth worthwhile, at a point when I was ready to give up on the town altogether. I’m still troubled by the American reverence for a random rock and the Pilgrims in general though (or more to the point, what the Pilgrims and the rock represent).  3.5/5 for the museum, and I hope everyone who celebrates it has a grand Thanksgiving, despite my Scrooge-like attitude!  Actually, I was planning on at least making a special meal this year, but a TMJ flare-up means although I’m still cooking it for my boyfriend’s sake,  I won’t be able to enjoy it without enduring horrible jaw and inner ear pain, so I guess I’ll just carry on being the Grinch of Thanksgiving in future!

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