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WHAT'S NEW?

Plimoth Plantation

Plimoth Plantation
SITE OF THE WEEK

We ate with the "Pilgrims" this week. I know they are actors dressed up in costumes, but they sure look and sound real. They hate the "P" word. They prefer to be called "English" and consider the terms "Puritan" and "Separatist" insulting.

 

VISIT the web site
DON'T MISS OUT PHOTOS of Plimoth Plantation

The dinner was a sit-down affair at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the legendary first Thanksgiving. This time, however, the nonprofit history museum was giving thanks for their new web site created by Brown & Company of Portsmouth, NH.

My wife and I were invited to share in the feast and spread the word. For $50 per pewter plate, visitors can now dine at a 1627 "groaning board" while costumed characters sing psalms and songs.

The menu included two huge courses, all prepared from 17th century recipes. The staff of Brown & Company were nervous that the food might be less than appetizing. One, reportedly, was planning to smuggle in a sandwich, but the meal was tantalizing, simple yet delicious. We’ll get to the web site in a minute, but first, the food.

The opening course began with a complex "sallet" (more than one vegetable), admittedly rare among Pilgrims. Then came local muscles steamed with fresh parsley and beer, a pottage of leeks, cabbage and onions, sauced turkey and sweet pudding made of native corn with currants. The second course included stewed "pumpion" (pumpkin), a chine of roasted pork and a fricassee of fish, followed by grapes, cheese, dried fruit and a very eggy colonial cheesecake. Everything was served in common plates and passed around.

A re-enactor in Puritan garb set the dining ground rules. Men wear napkins draped over the left shoulder, she scolded. Don’t wipe your mouth on the tablecloth. Eating with hands is okay. Lucky people get a spoon or knife; forks are not to be found. Do not put uneaten food back in the common bowl. No breaking wind at the table. We gobbled away for almost two hours and drove home as stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey.

The actors speak, for those who have never visited the Plantation, in thick English accents. Our founders were, after all, English. Role players use 16 different dialects to emulate the British regions from which members of the disparate group were born. The language sounds vaguely like that in a well-enunciated Shakespeare play. They pronounce knit, "ka-nit" and say things like "It doth please me to see you in such good humour." The entire village is trapped in the year 1627, seven years after the Mayflower arrived, and that applies to tools, clothing, body language and attitudes. Thankfully, the actors bathe, unlike our forbears.

THE WEB SITE MAKERS

Plimoth Plantation has had its own web site since the dawn of the Internet. I remember it as a superb source of data, filling up 2,000 web pages, I am told, of information on the Pilgrims, Plymouth and the Mayflower. But navigating the original site was a bit like handing each online visitor a filing cabinet instead of a brochure. Readers, especially parents and young children studying the Pilgrims, need large clear pictures and simple directions. On the surface the web site needed to be as easy for first timers to follow as the signs on the plantation. This way to the 1627 Pilgrim Village. That way to the Wompanoag family. The bathrooms are over there.

Last year web content manager Edya Kalev was hired to bring Plimoth.org into the 21st century. It was not an easy task. With 120 full-time year round plus more seasonal role players, the site had to please a lot of people. Edya, who also doubles as an actor on the Plantation, says they interviewed lots of web designers, but were particularly attracted to the work of Brown Design from way up in New Hampshire. Owner Mary Jo Brown had grown up near Sturbridge Village, another reconstructed New England town, and was passionate about her interest in living history and nonprofit museums, Edya says. Edya spoke to me via cell phone while driving in full costume to her evening lecture in Hopedale, Massachusetts.

"We HAD a web site, but we had never DESIGNED a web site," she says, emphasizing the distinction. "Brown does such beautiful work. I felt comfortable with them immediately."

Designer Chris Lamy talked to me the day after the feast. He says David Markovsky took the lead on this project. He selected an "earthy" color pallet of soft greens and pumpkin orange. (The real Plimoth, especially in November when the crowds are heaviest, is largely shades of gray.) Brown Design simplified the navigation and made use of the superb illustrations and photographs that were being used in the museum’s print materials, but not online.

It is such an intense site," Chris says. "There is so much info on it. It is essentially a library. We created the entire look and feel of the site."

The "Browns" even encouraged Edya to remove some of the existing data. Rather than give readers everything online, Chris says, it is also important to encourage interactivity and to draw people to the museum itself. Rather than give away the farm, so to speak, the site now features a changing array of articles that swirl around the archived data.

I only got stuck once, in a superb interactive study section for children and teachers called "You are the Historian". It is beautifully illustrated, but difficult to navigate. Once activated, the module expands to fill the users entire computer screen and I couldn’t find my way out. That award-winning section, as it turns out, was designed by another company and has been grafted into the new site by Brown. It is wonderful for kids, but the introduction moves a little slowly, takes up too much bandwidth, and needs clearer navigation and an escape hatch throughout – just a few tweaks. easy to fix.

Edya, who administers the web site from her office in Plymouth, MA, says Plimoth.org received nearly a half million visitors in the month since the relaunch. The great success of the project, she says, is the way every department at the museum worked cooperatively on the new content.

THE UP SHOT

Here in New Hampshire we tend to give our founding parents a hard time . The Pilgrims were, after all, a courageous, but strange group who exiled themselves to a foreign land. They were headed, of course, to Virginia, ending up much further north than anyone had anticipated. Those who didn’t fit the Puritan mold, I’ve always been told, were cast out of the plantation.

When the Massachusetts Bay colonists expanded their control northward, many 17th century Seacoast citizens up here were less than thrilled. Portsmouth residents, one old saying goes, were more inclined to feasting than fasting. On the Isles of Shoals the Puritan constable was chased and beaten with his own cudgel. A lot of us Massachusetts natives moved here for the same reason as the settlers – to avoid Mass taxes.

Edya says I haven’t got the history exactly right. Sure, some of the Pilgrims were pretty weird people, but half of the original Mayflower immigrants were Church of England types, she says. They drank and danced and nobody wore those stiff collars and black hats so often depicted in kid’s books and greeting cards. The story, she says after considerable research, is much more complex and fascinating than the textbooks and the Thanksgiving decorations imply. Plimoth was not founded primarily for religious freedom by a radical cult, but as a business, like New Hampshire and other colonies.

"They really came here for economic opportunity," Edya told me. She explained how the Separatist portion of the group had already enjoyed religious freedom in Holland, but were unhappy with the ultra-liberal conditions there. They wanted their children to grow up English, not Dutch, and they wanted their children to earn a better wage and to be able to own land, things near to impossible in the Old World.

It was, I have to admit, the first time I have ever gotten a history lesson from a person dressed like a Pilgrim using a hands-free cell phone on a Massachusetts turnpike.

But that’s the Plimoth miracle. Established in 1947 in the same Living Museum movement that inspired our Strawbery Banke, this enormously sophisticated museum is alive and well. Here in New Hampshire, we know almost nothing about the original settlers. There is no historic fishing village and no super-smart role players to tell the Granite State story. And there is no dramatic new web site like Plimoth.org where the tales of the Pilgrims and Wompanoag tribe are thoroughly researched and beautifully presented.

"It’s a blessing and a curse to be in all the history books," Edya says, "but a lot of that history is not correct. People come with expectations and we dash their hopes."

Good! It’s time we learned the real story of the founding of America. So you have a patriotic duty to see this web site. View it with your kids and learn the true story of Thanksgiving – a holiday created two hundred years later. (They did not have popcorn, by the way, and they did not celebrate every year.) More than that -- you must visit this amazing village. A million an a half tourists did last year.

I confess, my family drove right by for 50 years on the way to an aunt’s cottage on Cape Cod. But even on a drizzling November day, as I discovered last week, Plimoth is an eye-opener. And now the food alone is worth the trip.

Even more Pilgrims:
Plymouth and the Wax Museum
Photos of Plymouth Rock

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News about Portsmouth from Fosters.com

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 
 
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