Plymouth, Massachusetts’s world-famous living history museum rings in a big anniversary with a special lineup of events and exhibits.
By Ian Aldrich
Jun 15 2022
Sponsored by See Plymouth
On an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving weekend in 1948, Harry Hornblower II realized a dream come true when he welcomed guests to his newly opened museum on a patch of waterfront in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The 30-year-old Boston-born stockbroker had long been driven by a hunch that Americans were hungry for a more authentic telling of the Plymouth Colony story. In 1947, Hornblower created the organization that would eventually become Plimoth Patuxet Museums; a year later, visitors turned out in droves to see what he’d built so far.
During the opening week, more than 35,000 visitors streamed through the property’s single building, a 17th-century English house where hosts dressed in period clothing greeted the crowds and showcased Hornblower’s greater plans for his reconstructed Plymouth Colony.
“He really wanted to bring the story forward,” says Tom Begley, Director of Collections and Special Projects at Plimoth Patuxet. “He wanted to show the people from that period as human beings.”
The following year marked the museum’s first full season, with some 300,000 visitors coming to stroll through Hornblower’s creation. As its popularity grew, so did its offerings: A meeting house was built in 1953, and a second reproduction house in 1955. Two years later, the museum moved to its current site, part of the Hornblower summer estate, on the shores of the Eel River. That same year, it sponsored the construction and voyage of Mayflower II to Plymouth.
Today, 75 years after Hornblower first laid its foundations, Plimoth Patuxet encompasses more than 120 acres with seven distinct sites: Historic Patuxet, the 17th-Century English Village, Mayflower II, Plimoth Grist Mill, the Craft Center, the Maxwell and Nye Barns, and the Hornblower Visitor Center. Over the decades, approximately 35 million guests have visited the museum; some 300,000 people flock here annually. Recently, Plimoth Patuxet led a major, $11.9 million restoration of Mayflower II (in 2020 the ship was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it later received Niki and Paul Tsongas Award by Preservation Massachusetts). The organization is currently in the midst of fundraising for a new building for Indigenous research and programming and Mayflower II.
“This museum has changed a lot during its 75 years,” says Begley. “It’s never the exact same thing. That’s an important reason for our success. We are always looking for the best possible way to tell this story to an ever-changing audience.”
To celebrate the anniversary of its founding, Plimoth Patuxet is hosting special programs, activities, and events throughout the year. “It’s an exciting opportunity for museum visitors to not only learn about what we have in our collections but to understand how the museum came to be built,” says Begley. The effort has included tapping into the museum’s vast archives to showcase its history, yielding such gems as original plans and Hornblower family photos.
Plimoth Patuxet’s collections also form the backbone of the permanent exhibit “History in a New Light,” which documents the life of the Wampanoag’s Patuxet village before European contact. Included in the exhibit are artifacts, such as agricultural tools and fishing equipment, that are on view for the very first time; their discovery is the result of Project 400, an ongoing archaeological research collaboration of the Andrew W. Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at UMass Boston, the Town of Plymouth, and Plimoth Patuxet Museums.
The 75th anniversary festivities ramp up this summer and fall with a series of special events. On July 28, a virtual program will invite viewers around the world to delve even deeper into the history of New England’s Indigenous people, as Plimoth Patuxet’s deputy executive director and chief historian, Richard Pickering, focuses on how the museum preserves their arts, crafts, and cultural heritage. Called “In His Own Words: Nanepashemet on the History of Indigenous New England,” the program spotlights an exclusive interview between Pickering and the late Native scholar Nanepashemet, in which they discuss the history of Indigenous programming at the museum as well as Nanepashemet’s research on Wampanoag life in the 16th and 17th centuries. This video has not been accessible to the public since it originally aired in 1993.
On August 25, the virtual event “Corn More Precious Than Silver”: The Plimoth Grist Mill and the Importance of Corn in Plymouth Colony” will showcase a lively conversation between Pickering, museum gardener Dr. Fred Dunford, and Plimoth Grist Mill guest experience manager Kim Van Wormer that highlights how this crop was not only a source of food, but also a symbol of connection and understanding between the English colonists and the Indigenous people.
On September 29, the museum’s own past comes into focus with “Celebrating 75 Years of Living History at Plimoth Patuxet Museums.” Hosted by Begley, this virtual event will detail the fascinating story and vision of Henry Hornblower II and employ seldom-seen archival materials to trace his museum’s growth from a single reproduction Pilgrim home to an internationally recognized facility.
The anniversary programming finishes on a high note on October 15 with “An Evening with David Brooks,” an in-person event featuring the noted New York Times op-ed columnist and hosted by WGBH’s Jared Bowen, the station’s executive arts editor and Emmy-winning host of Open Studio. A cocktail reception and dinner are included in the evening, along with a special exhibition and musical performance.
For more information about Plimoth Patuxet Museums, including additional programs and offerings, and its 75th anniversary, go to plimoth.org.