And now for something completely different at Pilgrim Hall ...
To open their new changing-exhibit hall, directors of Pilgrim Hall Museum like to say they borrowed a line from the Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “And now for something completely different.”
Throw away preconceived notions about staid Pilgrims, the collection of 18th Century Treasures that opened to the public last weekend features stylish accessories to every day living that throws new light on perceptions of the austere Pilgrims and their early descendants.
And to guide visitors through the experience, the museum has called on a modern-day treasure with her own 21st century sense of style and fashion.
Clad in a rich gold 18th century gown, local model Arianna McNeill leads museum guests through the new exhibit on a series of provocative wall panels.
There’s McNeill coyly flirting with a portrait of artist John Trumbull. Other panels depict McNeill peering through a fancy 18th century mirror, holding up Gen. John Winslow’s silver and steel sword and showing off her own autumn leaf leg tattoo while holding a silk shoe embroidered with leaves of its own.
“It’s a subliminal idea,” Museum Director Peggy Baker said. “In the 18th century they didn’t think they were ye-olde-tymers. They thought they were hot, too. She’s our hot girl, helping people look at things a little differently.”
Associate Director Stephen O’Neil, who put together the exhibit, said he got his inspiration from looking at a fashion magazine’s treatment of the Jamestown experience.
O’Neill enlisted the help of McNeill, a local hairdresser with a strikingly full head of white-blonde hair, and local photographer Don Teague to put the exhibit’s rarely seen treasures in their proper light.
“I though it would be fun to have someone guide people through it. From how they saw themselves to the materials they used,” O’Neill said. “To compete with the brand new permanent exhibit we had to do something a little different.”
He referred to the main exhibits halls in the nearly 200-year-old museum, which reopened after an extensive renovation and facelift in May. The permanent exhibit now tells the familiar, if not necessarily historically accurate Pilgrim story in its grand upper hall. The reality of the experience is captured in a new permanent exhibit in the remodeled lower hall.
The 18th Century Treasures exhibit is the first of what will be many shows in an addition built onto the north side of the historic Greek revival museum. The 18th Century Treasures exhibit brings together some artifacts that once belonged in the permanent exhibit. Others have been in storage in the museum attic for decades.
Though recognized as significant artifacts of local history, they could not compete with artifacts that better told the Pilgrim story.
The new exhibit allows the pieces to expand the story and illustrate how some people in Plymouth began to enjoy a finer lifestyle just a century after the arrival of the Mayflower.
The exhibit includes finely crafted furniture and dinnerware. Josiah Winslow’s 1750 wig is made from finely curled human hair attached to a wool and linen netting. The so-called bob wig was bald on the top so a gentleman’s hat fit snugly. It is one of only three known to exist in New England.
“Instant air conditioning. You just took your wig off,” Baker said.
The exhibit includes elaborate samplers, a silver salt pail once owned by mother-of-the-Revolution Mercy Otis Warren and a letter signed by Britain’s Lord Horatio Nelson, noting the return of a local man’s seized ship in return for his help in escaping Boston Harbor in 1782.
The shoes McNeill displays in one of her seven wall posters may illustrate the improved living conditions best.
When Priscilla Thomas wore the shoe in the 1720s it was the latest in London fashion, at a time when fashion meant everything to her. Family history suggests she wore the shoe when she married in 1729 at age 22.
The shoe, silk brocade with white kid leather lining and soles, has brown, gold and green embroidered leaves on it.
McNeill holds the shoe in one hand while slightly lifting her skirt with the other to reveal autumn leaves tattooed on her left calf. “It’s a little different approach, but she’s just as fashion conscious,” O’Neill said.
“Those shoes would be hot shoes even today,” Baker said. “Just look at the heel and the embroidery. And you can see that even then women were shoving themselves into shoes a little too small for them.”
The exhibit includes sections on how the people of the 18th century saw themselves, their architecture and furniture, the materials that defined their daily lives and their fashions.
The 18th Century Treasures exhibit will remain in the changing-exhibit hall through December, when Pilgrim Hall closes for the season.