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Massachusetts Museum Presents Colonial School of Hard Knocks

Plimoth Plantation has an exhibition based on a reality TV show that puts modern Americans through the Pilgrims' paces.

August 01, 2004|Nancy Rabinowitz | Associated Press Writer

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Building a house in 17th century New England meant chopping down trees, splitting oak planks by hand for clapboard siding, filling the cracks with mortar made of clay -- and doing it all with the rudimentary tools available to early colonists.

In a new twist on making history come to life, visitors to Plimoth Plantation will have a chance to pick up similar tools and help reconstruct two houses used in the filming of the public television program "Colonial House."

On the unscripted show, which aired in May and will be rebroadcast on many PBS stations, modern-day families pretended to be 1628 settlers newly arrived in the New World on a tall ship. They spent several months trying to create a functioning and profitable colony, just like America's first settlers.

The "Colonial House" project is part of a new exhibition that runs through Nov. 28 and gives museum-goers a chance to see what life was like for the 26 people who participated in the filming of the series on the coast of Maine.

"The immediate thing we're trying to get people to learn is the past is a very different place," said Stuart Bolton, an interpretive artisan at Plimoth Plantation. "It's not just us in funny clothes."

The focus of the museum -- located in modern-day Plymouth a few miles from where a real group of early colonists, the Pilgrims, arrived from England in 1620 -- has always been to give visitors an interactive experience. The replica village features interpreters in costume who speak in colonial dialect.

But the new exhibition marks the first time that visitors to the museum will get to roll up their sleeves and see firsthand what the daily rigors of 17th century life really were like.

If heavy construction is too intense, other lessons include setting the sails on the replica Mayflower II, learning to sail or row a period boat and baking the 17th century way. Lessons in the dialect of the era, navigation, and basic embroidery will be offered, along with a chance to load and unload a ship with heavy wooden casks.

And if the houses are finished before the plantation closes for the season in November, visitors will also have a chance to spend a night in one of the houses. Otherwise, those willing to rough it will be allowed to stay in one of the permanent houses in the Pilgrim village.

The exhibition is part of a partnership between the museum and the producers of "Colonial House" that began early in the show's development.

The producers first approached Plimoth Plantation for help with a question about early colonial government. Soon, the museum staff became an indispensable partner in the television series' attempts to create an accurate approximation of an early colonial village.

Historians from Plimoth Plantation helped the show's producers to design the site in Machias, Maine, modeling it on three early real-life outposts -- the 1604 French settlement at St. Croix, Maine; the 1608 English settlement at Fort St. George, Maine; and the Plymouth settlement of 1620.

Although the museum's visitors will get a small taste of the hard life led by colonists, the "Colonial House" cast members say it's nothing compared with what they endured.

"Our main complaint for at least six weeks was hunger and famine. So food was a sensitive issue," said Domenic Muir, a tutor in real life who was responsible for doling out supplies such as dried peas and salted pig's feet to his fellow colonists.

At an appearance at the plantation to unveil plans for the interactive exhibition, Muir said he hoped visitors would come away with a sense of the grueling labor the colonists endured.

"I hope to give them a 21st century perspective on what 17th century life was," he said. "It's mind-numbing at times. It's repetitive. But it's work that one's livelihood depends on."

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