Thursday, May 31, 2007

Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center - Road Note

I set out to visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center with a degree of trepidation and cynicism. The trepidation came from my concern that the museum would be a less than solid effort based on my cynicism about the reason for putting up the museum in the first place. I was concerned that the only reason for putting up the museum was to create a cover for Foxwoods Casino, which dominates the Pequot Reservation and, to some extent, the region. While I have not completely given up my cynicism, the Museum itself is well worth a day’s visit, even if you don’t go to the casino.

Located within a short drive of Norwich, New London, or Mystic, Connecticut, the Pequot Museum is a most impressive structure. It boasts a sky tower which provides a panoramic view of the area for those who can stand openness at an impressive height. The museum charges an admission fee of $15.00 per person with appropriate reductions for age. When I presented my credit card, the clerk asked if I had another well-known card and immediately told me that our admission was free for the day, a promotion of the bank. It might be a good idea when you go the museum to ask whether there are any promotional specials. Cameras are forbidden inside the museum, so leave yours in your car.

The museum is built in a free form shape roughly resembling and Indian war club. Visitors enter on the third level and descend down a ramp or an elevator to the first level, where the story begins. Part of the descent is down an escalator through a very effectively simulated glacier, taking a visitor back 18,000 years to the last ice age. Typical of everything that is done in this museum, attention to detail is superb. The museum is divided into four sections. Life in a Cold Climate describes how Indian people arrived in North America and how they learned to live in and manage their environment through the centuries. The archeological and anthropological information given in the exhibits suggests that the museum curators have paid attention to the latest research concerning pre-contact civilizations of the woods Indians. A surprising number of artifacts are shown, especially considering the age and lack of permanent ruins in the region. Exhibits include a fine diorama of a caribou hunt as well as a forest setting demonstrating the usefulness of forest products and suggesting that the woods Indians managed the woodlands to assure the growth of desirable species, a practice not recognized until recently.

Perhaps the highlight of this museum can be found in The Pequot Village. Visitors are given an Audio Tour Unit before entering this large and entertaining exhibit. This gadget has a keyboard on which visitors can push numbered buttons corresponding to numbered plates in the floor. In each section remarkably lifelike figures are engaged in the arts of living. There is a village site, a sweat lodge, a large fishing scene, and a number of other exhibits depicting activities in lifelike settings. This is definitely a look don’t touch exhibit, but is fascinating. Typical of the attention to detail shown in this museum, each location permits listeners to garner additional information by pressing additional buttons on their unit. One of these always supports the exhibit’s authenticity by supplying information about how this information is known or was learned. This section alone is worth at least an hour’s visit.

The section called The Pequot War takes a very different view of the life among the Pequot people. In the mid-seventeenth century competition between Indian groups and English and Dutch settlers became intense as they struggled for commercial advantage and territory. The white settlers fought amongst themselves and solicited Indian support when it was advantageous to them. This all culminated in the Pequot War in which over 600 members of the Pequot tribe were killed and the survivors sold into slavery or other forms of servitude. Only a thin strand kept some of them together and kept tribal memory alive. One part of this section is a very vivid and violent film depicting the massacre. According to Wikipedia, the smallpox epidemic of 1616 – 1619 made the massacre possible. After the massacre there followed 300 years of poverty and dispersion while a few people kept the story alive. In the 1970’s, under the leadership of Skip Heyward, the Pequot nation began to rally to recover their land and their identity. Out of this effort has grown Foxwoods Casino, the largest in the world, and this museum to tell the story. As nearly as I can tell from a brief search of the Internet, the story is told pretty straight from the Pequot’s point of view. The wealth created by this enormously successful casino has thrown off enough money to create a wonderful and thought provoking museum.

The museum is open every day excluding major holidays from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM. You can find directions for getting to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & research Center here. Admission is $15.00 for adults, children under six are free. The museum store sells rather generic American Indian wares. Perhaps more interesting for those interested are the monographs the Research Center has produced. Since this museum has been in existence less than ten years, I expect that more research will be forthcoming. Despite my reservations, this museum is the real deal, a learning and entertainment experience which vies with Mystic Seaport as an attraction to eastern Connecticut. We drove back to our camper and the bluegrass festival without stopping at the casino.

All pictures are taken from the museum web site and will be removed at their request.