New exhibition opening in Plymouth next month

Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America is an exhibition centred on the creation of a newly crafted wampum belt. It will be displayed at The Box, Plymouth from 18 May – 11 July, alongside rarely seen historic wampum belts on loan from the British Museum and Saffron Walden Museum.

Wampum is indigenous, sacred and symbolic. Made from the purple and white shells of the quahog and whelk, the beads carry the history, culture and name of the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts, whose ancestors met the passengers of the Mayflower in 1620 and ensured their survival. The exhibition brings these key pieces of history together with contemporary images and films. It is the first-ever wampum exhibition to be staged in the UK and forms a key part of the Mayflower 400 commemorations involving the UK, USA, Netherlands and Wampanoag Nation.

Wampum belts tell stories of communities and culture and embody the Wampanoag’s connection to the sea as well as to life itself. Whether a spoil of war, an ornament, a souvenir or a gift, each shell is imbued with memory and meaning.

An extraordinary new wampum belt forms the centrepiece of the exhibition at The Box. The belt has been created by over 100 Wampanoag craftspeople of different ages and backgrounds. Measuring 150cm long and 26cm wide and featuring over 5,000 hand-crafted wampum beads, it’s an authentic replication of the wampum belts that were made during the 1600s.

The design has been inspired by tribal elders from the Wampanoag community to reflect their creation story and respect for the earth and its preservation. The belt depicts the people of all the Wampanoag villages and clans, hand-in-hand, engaging in a round dance.

The creation of the belt has emerged from a special partnership between The Box and members of the Wampanoag, notably SmokeSygnals, plus research at the British Museum. The exhibition promotes the significant renewal of this art form and will take visitors into the world of the Wampanoag who have lived in Massachusetts for 12,000 years and remain on their ancestral lands today.

The narrative of the exhibition is driven by the loss of an historic 17th century belt worn by Wampanoag leader Metacom during King Phillip’s War (1675-1678), known as the bloodiest war ever fought in America. Metacom’s belt was taken and although documentation shows it was due to enter royal collections in Britain, it was never received. The making of the new belt aims to honour the old belt and pay tribute to the 5,000 people who currently live in the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag Nations.

Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America forms part of The Box’s 2021 reopening programme. It will be displayed in the gallery next to The Box’s major Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy exhibition, which tells a shared transatlantic history.Images of the Wampanoag and the story of their lives today will be on display alongside three specially commissioned films exploring the history, creative process and cultural significance of wampum.

Additionally, the exhibition includes a 55-minute documentary that is significant to the Wampanoag. Exclusively shown at The Box, it shows how they have reclaimed their ancestral language after generations of suppression. Through these authentic voices, Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America explores the Wampanoag’s cultural history and life in America today, the impact of the past on its people, and their creative aspirations for the future.

Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America previously toured to SeaCity Museum, Southampton. Following the exhibition at The Box, it will travel to the Guildhall Art Gallery, London from 23rd July to 5th September 2021.

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