Discover South Devon ~ Summer 2021

Summer 2021 ~ History & Heritage

Written By Dartmouth Museum

Dartmouth Museum’s Mayflower Exhibit

The Mayflower Exhibit Opens in Early August

“Who were these people, and what led them to make such a dangerous journey?”

Dartmouth Museum is about to open a new Exhibition bringing to life the adventurous and disturbing story of the Mayflower Pilgrim Separatists and their suffering before settling in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.

It features a unique locally built; 12-foot replica model of their ship, the Mayflower, open on one side to reveal the interior and contents; an audiovisual 20-minute presentation of the story; descriptive panels exploring the many facets of the story, and an atmospheric display cabinet and carpenter’s cabin. A large new painting depicting Dartmouth and life in the town in 1620, and several other relevant paintings and drawings add background and colour.

The Museum is housed in an impressive oak framed merchant’s house; completed in 1640, full of character and in the centre of town. It contains a treasure trove of the history of the town and area. Dartmouth; is particularly lucky as its history as a major west country port is full and fascinating. On display are the stories of the 2nd and 3rd Crusades in 1147 and 1190, the 100-year war with France, the Armada, the English Privateers based on the Dart (Raleigh, Gilbert, and Davis), the Triangular Cod Trade from Newfoundland starting in the 1500s, the English Civil War, the slavery raids of the North African Barbary Pirates, the Mayflower Separatists and other colonial activities, the invention of the first steam engine by Thomas Newcomen – a Dartmouth man. We also cover the significant activity in World War II, especially the preparations for the D-Day landings and the Dartmouth-based small boat activities supporting the French Resistance and rescuing escaping airmen.

In short, Dartmouth has been at the helm of history for a thousand years and the Museum captures that history.

The new Mayflower Exhibition is the culmination of four years’ work and planning. It commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Separatists’ visit to Dartmouth in 1620 before setting off for the New World. At the time Dartmouth was renowned for its skilled shipwrights and the second ship, the Speedwell, was leaking badly.

The Exhibition is a ‘must see’. It tells the complex story of the Separatists and gives an insight into the nature of life in Dartmouth at the time.

Visit the Exhibition and you can put yourself in the position of the Separatists.  Persecuted and hounded out of England because of their religious beliefs they moved to Leiden in the Netherlands. There they found life hard, reduced to poverty in menial jobs in the midst of a thriving Dutch economic golden age – so unlike rural England.  With their children slipping away into Dutch life they resolved to take the dangerous and desperate step of seeking a life in the New World; where at the time few settlements had succeeded.

The Replica Model

Let us focus first on the ship itself. The replica scale model of the Mayflower is the centrepiece of the Exhibition. The model has been built by shipwright Capt. Ian Kirkwood helped by a team of local volunteers. It is based on the plans of the Mayflower II, built in Brixham in 1955-56, obtained from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is open on the port side to show the interior and some of the contents – an insight into what a trading ship of the time and life on board would have been like.

As well as helping with the build, the volunteer team has contributed a wide range of skills, from the lighting of the interior to making the rigging, sails, sacks, and barrels. Sourcing 30 meticulously made manikins dressed as passengers and crew to populate the ship adds an extra dimension.  Dartmouth has seen the first ‘ropewalk’ for two hundred years making rope of an unusual size for the standing and running rigging.

Every stage of the build brought its own challenge. Ian had the experience of building a full-size working 1760 Sixth Rate Frigate, but a 12-foot model is unusual. Improvisation has been essential. The plans had to be scaled down. The build techniques had to be altered to match the skills of the team members. The project plan had to be flexible to allow for the unpredictable availability of the volunteers, all of whom are retired and had conflicting demands on their time.

Further challenges have arisen throughout, not least the raising of the part-completed model to the third floor of the building and easing it through the narrow doorway, all requiring millimetric accuracy. Unsurprisingly, the Covid pandemic has caused very considerable delay, particularly during the lockdown periods, when only solo working was permitted, and at other times when two or more could work on the model at the same time, if appropriately distanced.

The Model is now ready and stands impressively and beautifully in the centre of the Exhibition room. It makes an immediate impact, an intake of breath as you enter the room, and the details reward longer study. The interior is lit and divided into several ‘scenes’ which help to explain the Pilgrim story and life on board.

Phase II of the project will invest in augmented virtual reality to help illustrate the story in a more lifelike way.

The Mayflower Exhibition

The Model is only part of the greater Mayflower Exhibition. A separate team of volunteers has put together a collection of paintings, story panels, artefacts, an audiovisual 20-minute presentation, and an impression of a full-size carpenter’s cabin on board the ship.

The lobby entrance to the Exhibition displays a new 1 x 1.5 metre painting of Dartmouth in 1620 loaned to the Museum by artist David Marsh. This colourful detailed depiction of a vibrant busy town, showing Mayflower and Speedwell on the river, is alongside two maps by Nicholas Townsend drawn in 1619 to support legal proceedings. A panel describing Dartmouth and referring to the pirates and slave traders who plagued the English Channel at the time shares the space. A book by David Marsh supplements the painting and is full of explanations of the activities in the town. It is available in the museum shop with cards and other mementoes.

Enter the room itself and the 9 illustrated panels fill the walls. They explore the many facets of the full Mayflower story, interspersed with paintings imagining Dartmouth at the time. The 20-minute audiovisual presentation on the Pilgrim Separatists, their beliefs, background, persecution, and journey to the New World is run throughout the day and is an excellent way to relax and be informed. This is produced for the Museum by South Devon TV and DVDs will become available to purchase in early August.

The Mayflower Story

It is a compulsive and gripping story. Behind the traditional school tale of idealism, the search for freedom, danger, and adventure is a darker side – deceit, exploitation, conflicting interests, and lack of consideration for and exploitation of the Native American tribes. There is much treachery amongst these tribes and their experiences with the Settlers. However, mixed in with this is also the heart-warming side of friendship and cooperation, and tremendous community spirit and determination.

“This model and the exhibition is a triumph for the volunteer teams and community support. Both the model and exhibition teams have shown true resilience and stamina. We have had to adapt many times, especially coping with the challenges of COVID-19. We will now have a permanent visitor attraction and educational tool for Dartmouth.

Many local businesses and individuals, some remaining anonymous, have contributed generously in cash and kind and we are very grateful for their support. Without it, there would be no model or exhibition. Their names are on the acknowledgments board in the Exhibition.”

Spencer Wigley – PROJECT DIRECTOR

Special thanks to David Marsh & South Devon TV

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