Saturday, August 1, 2009

Jamestown Settlement

Alright, let's conclude this trip to Jamestown Settlement. I also had been to Yorktown Victory Center with my mother, which had a decent museum and a very disappointing (but others were impressed) living history area. So, my hopes were in the middle for Jamestown. With the anniversary of the 400th year since settling Jamestown, I knew they had upped the ante (the Queen visited after all...) in design and renovations...

As previously mentioned, I had made it as far as the Powhatan Village at the Settlement. After passing the totem circle and learning about Native interpreters at the site (or lack there of) I headed into the heart of the village, where their reed covered homes were dispersed in a similar style seen in White's drawings and in John Smith's journals.

"This watercolor by John White depicts the village of Pomeiooc in the North Carolina coastal plain. It was this image that was used to create the computer-rendered village. The structures in the village are also similar in design to those that are reconstructed at Jamestown as a Powhatan village. It is very likely that the Indians of eastern North Carolina had contact with the Powhatans." (From Disappearing Indians?)

The structures, as mentioned in the caption, were reconstructed at the Village at Jamestown Settlement, not necessarily in a circle. The were beautifully constructed and reflected a theory based on John Smith's writings, Powhatan oral history, and anthro/archeo work done on Southern Woodlands communities.

I was disappointed that grouse weren'tt represented and mainly Anglo style chickens seen on Old MacDonald's Farm were, I'm not sure about chicken ancestry in America though. (How nerdy is that?)

The homes were quite nice, and well put together - I was curious how frequently they replaced the materials, they were in great condition and seemed to lack any type of deterioration. The object to the right of the home in the chicken photo is an infamous corn pounder. It seems to be the children and birds favorite hang out - any chance to violently smash corn into bits appeals to the children and the treat it provides appealed to woodpeckers, blue jays and common little scavenger birds alike.

The interior of the homes featured plenty of birds and furs alike, as well as space for fires.

Sorry for the slightly blurry interior shots. I like the gull that's been pulled in two. The interior descriptions are primarily based on anthro/archeo research and Capt. John Smith's infamous journals about his experiences at Powhatan's village. There were no interpreters inside the buildings and there were more deerskin to choke a horse. The shots above are from the main meetinghouse.

Well, that was that. There was a small area, which featured a non-Native third person interpreter cooking fish and they had stations of tightened deerskin for children to try their hand at "skinning." I meandered through a beautiful wooded area towards where I could see the ship's masts - I'm sure that pirate films and the overall coolness of big glorious ships made this a hot spot, and it sure did (for young boys especially! Seems young girls liked the Indian village and young boys preferred the glamour of ships..)

I learned from some of the signage and from individuals at other museums that the ships were made in Maine and made the trip down the coast to the docks of the Settlement. These ships were also used in the film
The New World. I even felt myself getting giddy as I headed towards the dock, the boats were beautiful.

The masts of the larger ship the Susan Constant.

Two were available to explore, Susan Constant and I believe Discovery. There was some nearby signage discussing the journey from England to Jamestown and a costumed interpreter did first person acting discussing his travels on the ships much to the enjoyment of adults while their children went wild on the ships.

Costumed interpreters were on both ships, three total, working in third person. One was from England, which provided "authenticity" to the experience of crawling around on a big meaty ship. I was able to take the ladder below (I don't know ship lingo...even with that trip to the Maritime Museum!) to see storage units, sleeping quarters, and the very fancy captain's quarters (the only private sleeping space on the ship it seemed!). Some areas were blocked off, which featured movable objects to add authenticity to the ship, bust most areas were open to the visitor, allowing one to stick your head out the windows, pose for photo ops, imagine what it'd be like to shoot a cannon and to pull that whole Leonardo DiCaprio stunt from

The Discovery from the deck of the Susan Constant.

Giant wooden bust which sat on top of pulleys for the ropes.

Captains quarters.

The interpreters seemed impatient and anxious. It was lunch time in Jamestown Settlement, so staff members were coming and going, relieving one another of his ship duty to go eat. They'd stop working with visitors to declare lunch time and ignore any questions as they scurried off the ship. I wasn't impressed with the information provided and was left rather clueless on how some of the ship's tools and tracking devices worked, the men seemed more interested in the specials in the dining hall. But, the ships were beautiful objects, well put together and well curated. It is quite a lovely experience to overlook the James River from these boats on a beautiful sunny day. I could only imagine the first site of the land when the original settlers arrived..

Conservation work was being done on the boats - lacquering, paint detailing and general duties to help maintain the quality appearance of the ships. The nicest staff members I encountered were the ship conservators (they travel all over the coast).

After exploring the dock, I headed to the fort of Jamestown on the property. This was a space I remembered as a child, where my mother took a photo of me wearing giant pieces of period armor (And I saw other parents doing the same to their children). Interpreters were more active here, discussing in third person the experiences and hardships of the settlers. The buildings were beautifully put together, and despite being in such a small area it was easy to explore and not feel to confined, it was quite crowded though. I visited a storehouse, a kitchen, the guard house, school house/church and some other random generic buildings. There was one female interpreter, cooking, and the rest (two-three) were men discussing the art of warfare. The blacksmith was no where to be found much to the disappointment of the youngins.

As you can see, the buildings were great. The colors, the techniques used to get the textures and the craftsmanship was wonderful. This was the busiest area on the grounds, which did cause problems due to the space constraints and the layout. But, it was well maintained - gritty and worn, and beautiful at the same time.

Costumed interpreter (3rd person) discusses the art of warfare in 17th century Virginia. He had the most impress costuming out of any interpreter on the grounds.

Lunchtime at the Blacksmith shop. It's not a living history museum without a blacksmith.

After spending about 20 minutes in this area I had to start heading back to Colonial Williamsburg to finish my day doing some research on treaties. I decided to head back to the visitor center/museum and check out the gift shop on my way out. It was appalling.

The majority of the objects for sale were cheap, made in China toys of "Indian princesses" and "little braves." You could buy costumes to dress your daughter up like a princess, bows, arrows, cheaply made dream catchers and more t-shirts then you can shake a stick at with tacky one-liners like "The original - Jamestown." I bought a few postcards and watched the children rampage the cheap toy section. Oh, I also scored a sweet Pocahontas crossstitching design which I'm making my stepmother stitch for me.

They had two gift shops, both were filled with crap made of stereotypical truck stop Indian wetdreams.

Smaller gift shop, I've seen my fair share of "Indian" themed dream catcher's at truck stops across the US, as seen here.

The main gift shops plethora of cheap "Indian" dolls and toys.

After that whirlwind, I headed back to work. Another fascinating museum experience in Virginia. A few things to summarize my experience...

  • Visitors were more interested in the living history aspects of the museum.
  • The African experience area of the museum was impressive and offensive at the same time and was largely ignored by non-black visitors. There were no African American intepreters on the grounds.
  • The Native exhibit was also impressive yet offensive. I really wish we could move beyond tacky mannequins.
  • A really impressive building and center with more information than an average museum goer can handle.
  • The cafe wasn't bad and the prices and taste wasn't too shabby.
  • Beautiful surroundings.
  • Fun experience for kids, as long as parental units are willing to educate their children about the difference between a white person dressed up like an Indian and a real Native person and how life wasn't all ships and blacksmiths.
  • Worth visiting the National Park site about a mile away especially if you're in a party of only adults.
Alright, time to go enjoy the last Saturday I have in DC, and perhaps another entry tonight!


  1. Thanks for a great post - I too am sick of trite Native American portrayals. It's a shame that the African American exhibit was ignored by non-Blacks. Guess we still have a long way to go.

  2. Hi Harriett, I think everyone has a long way to go - we'll see how it all transpires with our generation of scholars and museum professionals. Have you read Playing Ourselves? It's quite fascinating...

  3. No, but thanks for the recommendation. I will now.

  4. Hey Nerd-

    Great blog Sarah. I love to see you blossoming into an academic, I'm so proud of you!

  5. Thank you for posting a review of the Jamestown Settlement. As an employee there, I enjoyed seeing things through an informed visitors eye. It actually reinforces many of the recommendations the staff had made. Glad you enjoyed the fort I've worked there since '83. We've been working hard on the buildings. And I also detest the statues especially the "Pocahantas" and "John Rolfe". The offensive aspects of the gallery exhibits is intriguing, there is sometime to it, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Any more thoughts?
    Thank you!

  6. I always enjoy a walk around the museum, all the historical value makes me feed my knowledge and i feel that i grow up like a person. I like to try what i want to prove. this is when i buy viagra for my husband. whenever i have a doubt, i mus to satisfy my curiosity.