At the Museum

The Past and Present Collide

An exclusive tour of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum


In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore proposed that technology (and by extension, life) develops at an exponential rate. Faster processing speeds lead to faster productivity lines, which lead to faster development times, which lead to faster creations, faster computers, faster this, faster that, faster faster faster. Everything becomes faster. It’s all part of this exponential acceleration.

But acceleration, by its very nature, demands attention. People focus on the road ahead, searching for the next big gadget, app or social trend. Which creates a problem: staying so focused on the now causes people to forget about how all of this - all of this exponential growth - only came about because of what came before. So while yesterday’s road may have been for- gotten, without it there would not be today’s destination.

The further away the road, though, the more difficult it is to find a definitive connection between the distant past and today’s accelerated future. And more often than not it requires a team of professional archaeologists, excessive financial backing and a passion for history that’s rare in today’s forward-focused environment.

Thankfully there exists a (somewhat) local establishment with all of those traits: the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, located near Foxwoods. Owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the very same individuals behind the nearby world’s largest casino, this 15-year-old museum spares no expense for preserving and presenting Native American history. And it’s evident right from the museum’s architectural design.

Currently the museum’s glass and steel building has won a total of eight architectural awards - one of which was earned solely for the museum’s roof, which is covered with grass and plants, so that if viewed from the museum’s 18-story observation tower it seems to blend seamlessly with the surrounding natural landscape.

“It’s something we’re extremely proud of,” says Barbara Kingsland, the museum’s marketing manager. “[The building’s architecture] is influenced by history, and has multiple purposes. The roof also acts as a terrace, and we use it for events, weddings, gatherings and a pow-wow every summer.”

This combining-past-with-present concept flows throughout all of the museum. For example, the main entrance brings guests into a two-story circular area called the Gathering Space. Cov- ered from floor to ceiling with large windows, the room is designed to imitate the palisade-surrounded Pequot fort that once stood in Mystic, Connecticut, in the early 1600s.

“A lot of proms happen here; with the ceiling windows revealing the night sky above and the stars, it’s beautiful,” says Kingsland. “We enjoy bringing people into the history, letting them experience it.”

From the main room guests descend a one-story ramp toward the actual exhibits. “Walking down the ramp, we begin to, in a way, go back in time, or descend into history,” says Kingsland, who points out that the ramp’s floor is made of crushed quahog shells. (Historically, quahog shells were used to make wampum, white-shelled beads that Native Americans used as currency. So in a way, guests literally descend upon the financial history that led to the museum’s creation.)

As guests descend into time, the first exhibit they meet details how the museum itself came to be – a story that Kingsland finds “really amazing, because of how easily all of this, Fox- woods, the land, the museum, could have just not existed.”

According to her, the story goes that in the early 1900s the tribe had grown thin, until only three women, Alice Brend, Elizabeth George and Martha Langevin, were left on the reserva- tion. “Sometime in the ‘70s they got a letter from the state that said when they died, [the state] would take the last big part of the reservation and turn it into a state park.” The women then took their letters to a lawyer who - “and this is where I picture it as the big ah-ha! moment in a movie,” jokes Kingsland - found a law stating that only the federal government could take tribal land. Up to that point, all of the land had been taken by the local government.

“As soon as the Pequots were federally recognized, they received a lot of their land back,” says Kingsland. “But it’s strange to think about how close it had come to none of this existing. If the lawyer hadn’t done his homework, or if the women had received their letters ten years later...”

Surprisingly, though, for a museum funded by Foxwoods, it’s commercially neutral. The nearby gambling titan could have so easily implemented advertising or branding messages into the exhibits, but instead they focused on creating the best damn history presentation that this writer has ever encountered.

“All of the [Native American] figures are cast from actual Native American people,” says Kingsland, describing the 51 life-like figures scattered through- out the museum. “Every one is based on an actual person. [The people] were sent to New York and cast as models.

The jewelry they wear, the painting on the faces, all of that is authentic and well researched. The clothing, all of it.”

And when Kingsland says “all of it,” she means it. If a diorama features a caribou or bear, it’s a taxidermied caribou or bear. Or if a tribal member is catching a fish from a boat, the water in which they fish is crystal clear, flowing water. This attention to detail, combined with the realistic facial features and muscle definition of the figures, makes the exhibits feel like real moments in time frozen for the onlookers pleasure. As if there exists for each diorama a living, breathing world.

But that isn’t to say that all of the museum involves staring silently at figures. Quite the contrary, in fact, for the museum strives to make history an interactive experience. Some exhibits feature phone numbers to call for detailed information, whereas others have accompanying touch screens for further exploration. (They even have a professional-grade movie theater showing The Witness, a 30-minute graphic film dramatizing the Pequot War, 1636-38.)

“You can go as deep as you want into any of the stories that are here,” says Kingsland. “It’s very high tech and very detailed, and we really have the cream of the crop researchers backing it all.”

Right now, those cream-of-the-crop researchers are focused on the Pequot War, specifically the major battle that occurred at the aforementioned Pequot fort at Mystic. King- sland describes their efforts as “on the scale of the research that was behind setting up Gettysburg National Park,” and calls it “a very exciting time” for lovers of Native American history.

Instilling that excitement for history into a child or young adult, however, can prove difficult, if not impossible, which is why the museum frequently hosts events that have nothing to do with Native American history. For example, starting February 15 (in time for school vacation), the museum hosts Backyard Insects, an exhibit featuring “giant robotic insects up to 96 times their normal size,” including an 11-foot-tall tarantula and a 19-foot-wide monarch butterfly.

“We try to have something going on all the time,” says Kingsland. “New films, corporate events, proms, weddings, hands-on activities, instructional presentations – we want this to be a place where people can come and let the history into their lives. Because history shouldn’t be forgotten; it’s the reason we’re here today.”

So all those years ago, when Gordon E. Moore proposed the exponential acceleration of technology, it’s doubtful that he thought of including Native American historical preservation in that proposal. But it appears that the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center has done exactly that: accelerated history. Jettisoned it from the dusty past. Transformed it into a high-tech form appropriate for today’s modern world.
All you have to do is go see it for yourself.

Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket, CT. 800-411-9671.