15 August-18 October 2020
Told by Wampanoag voices throughout, Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America is the story of Wampanoag Native America. The Wampanoag people have lived in north eastern America for 12,000 years. Their nation extended beyond Boston, into Central Massachusetts and south to Rhode Island. The Mayflower passengers arrived there in 1620. Yet for almost 400 years, the impact of the Mayflower’s arrival on the Wampanoag Nation has been widely marginalised in the telling of Mayflower history.
This new exhibition is presented by The Box, Plymouth and grew out of a partnership with Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth 400 and the Wampanoag cultural advisors SmokeSygnals. It unites contemporary indigenous artists and educators in the USA with museums and historic collections in the UK. It features the first artistic commission from the UK to acknowledge our cultural connection to the Wampanoag Native American nation – a new wampum belt.
Wampum belts are a tapestry of art and tribal history. Made from the purple and white shells of the whelk and quahog, wampum beads embody the Wampanoag connection to the sea and to life itself. Each shell bead is imbued with memory and meaning by the maker.
Wampum belts are of cultural, sacred and symbolic significance to the Wampanoag nation. Through wampum belts, the Wampanoag share stories of their communities and culture. The newly crafted wampum belt has been created by more than 100 artisans from the Wampanoag nation and consists of 5,000 handcrafted beads. It will tour with historic wampum belts from the British Museum collection. On completion of the tour, the new wampum belt will be returned to the Wampanoag Nation.
It is hoped that through this touring exhibition a lost Native American treasure may be uncovered – the wampum belt of the Wampanoag chief Metacom. It has not been seen since it was sent to England in 1677 following the King Philip’s War, and has been the subject of an intensive international search that began in late 1970 and continues to this day.
SeaCity Museum is the first to show this unique display in the UK and sits in the Southampton Stories exhibition space, which also features work and materials from Native American artists and items on loan from Saffron Walden.
Funded by Arts Council England as part of its support for the Mayflower 400 programme, Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America will explore the history, art and culture of the Native Americans who met the passengers of the Mayflower on their arrival in modern day Massachusetts in 1620 and ensured their survival. Wampanoag artists will share their story and set out their creative aspirations for the future through images, ideas and wampum.