South County’s Tomaquag Museum will soon be on the move. The Native American history and culture museum is preparing to break ground this year on a new facility on the campus of the University of Rhode Island.
“The museum was founded in 1958 by anthropologist Eva Butler and Princess Red Wing, who was Narragansett and Wampanoag,” explains executive director Lorén Spears. “[Princess Red Wing] was the first-person voice of this museum from its very inception. It was rare in those days to have two women founding a museum.”
Originally located in the Tomaquag Valley in Hopkinton, Spears says, “the museum has actually existed in five locations, two in Hopkinton, and three in Arcadia Village in Exeter.” Currently, the museum is located in Exeter on land where, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Dovecrest Restaurant and Trading Post served traditional Native American cuisine, until the property was donated to the museum by the Dove family.
“Our legal name is the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum,” says Spears. “When we rebranded in 2012, we dropped the ‘Indian Memorial’ language for a myriad of reasons. One, a memorial sounds like we’re all dead… in the 1950s that’s what people put on museums. And of course, the term ‘Indian’ is not a term that we are using regularly today,” she adds.
The nonprofit’s mission has always centered around education, too. In 2003, Spears founded the Nuweetooun School, which once operated inside the museum. “I ran the school for seven years until 2010. It was a private school for grades K-8, with a focus on Indigenous youth. It was impactful for native youth and provided education for kids through museum programming as well as through the school,” she shares.
However, flooding caused severe damage in 2010; on the heels of the 2008-09 recession, the school was forced to shutter and the museum reorganized. “We now have 11 staff members – we’ve had a lot of growth over the past 10 years to build the infrastructure of the museum,” Spears explains.
Flash forward to 2022. Construction on the 18-acre facility on the URI campus is expected to start soon. “We are working on architectural plans, exhibits, interior designs. If everything goes perfectly, we’re talking late fall for shovels in the ground,” says Spears.
The new museum will feature state-of-the-art exhibits spread out over four buildings. “We’ll have a main building that will have the education offices, as well as a gallery for contemporary art. There will be a museum store where we will feature local Indigenous artists. The actual exhibit gallery will have eight to 10 exhibits for people to meander through,” Spears explains.
Exhibits will include audio, video, and tactile experienced-based storytelling, Spears says, “to help people learn about the Indigenous communities of Rhode Island and southern New England.”
Three other buildings are planned, including an education center and an Indigenous empowerment center, which will include studios for an artist-in-residence. A large courtyard will host opportunities for members of the community to come together for storytelling and other activities.
The new museum isn’t slated to open until 2023, but in the meantime, Tomaquag Museum is open for tours and visits at its current Exeter home. Summer events are yet to be finalized at press, but check their website for educational programming and more.
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