Malka Benjamin prepares for the day.
This article originally appeared October 10, 2013, in Issue #27.
As Malka Benjamin moves through her day, every object she encounters has been considered exhaustively. The handmade pitcher on her sideboard is based on pottery fragments discovered during archeological digs. A chest set in a dark corner is beautifully carved by a master craftsman and filled with hand-woven cloths made from natural fibers. The goal, Benjamin explains, is to have everything in her house be “the least arbitrary it can be.”
Her “house” is actually the Warren house on Plimoth Plantation, a living museum dedicated to America’s Puritan forebears in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the eponymous rock. (The museum’s spelling is historical and intentional.) She has steeped herself in the world of living history, learning not just the facts of the past but its rhythms, sounds, and smells.
At 28, she already has a career in historical interpretation that stretches back two decades, as well as a BA in archeology and anthropology. She owns a dog-eared copy of the definitive edition of William Bradford’s first-hand account of the Plantation and reads (and re-reads) other primary sources on the Plimoth village regularly. She harnesses the vast resources of the Internet to add subtlety to her understanding of historical figures. And she does it all in a petticoat.
Living in history
Benjamin begins a typical day, after a brief meeting with colleagues, by getting her house in order. She unbolts the wooden shutters and sweeps aside yesterday’s ashes before heading to the community woodrick, a massive circular collection of logs, to pick up wood. She lights her fire using a single modern match and fetches water in large kettles from a spigot hidden in an employee storeroom — another rare anachronism — nestled behind a historic façade. She sets her kettle over the fire and unpacks her cooking basket.
She still remembers her first visit to one of these houses when she was about six or seven years old. She walked in and the interpreter asked her to help dry dishes. For Benjamin, that small interaction was enough to spark a lifelong obsession. “I was smitten, if you can be smitten with a place,” she says.
It does seem like the sort of place that could inspire devotion. Plimoth Plantation began as the pet project of Henry Hornblower II, a wealthy Boston stockbroker from a patrician New England family. Since 1947, the museum has grown from a couple of cottages and a fort along Plymouth’s waterfront into a thriving educational tourist complex that includes the village, the Mayflower II, a Wampanoag homesite, and — as of 2013 — a mill. These attractions together draw over 350,000 visitors each year.
To enter the colonial village, visitors pass through its palisade, a large fence encircling the village, and walk into a world that seems lifted from another time. Rows of tidy houses line a central dirt-packed road, with kitchen gardens patchworked between them and the occasional heritage-breed chicken running by. In the distance, tall trees fade into the dark blue of Plymouth Bay. The site was chosen specifically to emulate the topography of the original settlement (now covered by downtown Plymouth). Goats call softly to each other, birds sing in the bushes, and crickets chirp from the tall grass.
Probably no one could feel more genuinely at home in a Pilgrim house on an unseasonably cool September morning than Benjamin. After her initial visit she really was smitten, and soon had her parents driving the hour each way about once a month from Newton, a suburb of Boston. Benjamin was drawn to the human interactions she had with the historic interpreters working in the village.
“Historic interpreter” can refer to a number of different types of roles. In living museums — in which history is re-created, rather than represented — it can refer to typical, modern guides; costumed guides who speak from a modern perspective; or first-person interpreters, who not only wear costumes but also speak as though they themselves were historical figures.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, interpreters wore costumes but were very much themselves, modern guides available to discuss the Pilgrim legacy. But it was not until the 1970s that first-person interpretation made its way there, and Plimoth has since been a leader in the United States for that approach.
The 1960s and ’70s brought deep and wide-ranging changes to the Plantation, largely under the auspices of James Deetz, an archeologist and anthropologist who became assistant director of the museum. As part of a new movement toward humanism and multi-disciplinary approaches to history, he began hacking away at typical misconceptions of Pilgrim life: no more neat cottages with glass-paned windows, Pilgrim mannequins, and anachronistic antiques.
Deetz wanted to overturn this romanticized vision of America’s forebears, stressing the need for archeological data to create a more realistic — and rustic — village. “To be ‘live,’ a museum is not simply operating,” he wrote, “with someone spinning in the corner or splitting shingles in the yard. To function properly and successfully, a live museum should convey the sense of a different reality — the reality of another time.”
Benjamin shaves cinnamon into a bowl while preparing a colonial-era pudding.
A natural time traveler
This is the village that Benjamin fell in love with. She wrote a letter to “Mistress Fuller,” her favorite interpreter, and sent it off to the Plimoth Plantation PO box. She got a reply, not from Mistress Fuller but from Lisa Walbridge, the woman playing Fuller, who told young Benjamin she could audition to volunteer as a child interpreter. Malka was shocked. She was accepted and her career began. “For most of my childhood this was the center of my existence,” she says.
“She was absolutely an amazing actress, an amazing historian, before she reached the age of 11,” says Walbridge, who sponsored Benjamin as a child volunteer. “She knew exactly how to play it. People left her crying.”
After a couple of intervening jobs at other historic sites, Benjamin, now a full-time interpreter, is working today on an “uncommonly good” pudding based on a Dutch recipe from the period (here, it is always 1627). A cooking basket was packed for her early this morning with a recipe and ingredients, including whole nutmeg and cinnamon that she grates with a small knife and pounds in a mortar and pestle. As she pours milk into a pitcher, with wooden bowls gathered around the table and onions hanging in long strands in the background, it is striking how painterly the scene appears. “We call that ‘getting Vermeered,’” Benjamin explains. “It’s some of the highest praise we can get!”
In the 17th century, when most English painting was portraiture, the Dutch often depicted casual and domestic scenes. Since the Pilgrims lived for years in Leiden, Holland, these Dutch scenes, including those by Vermeer, provide valuable reference points not just for how houses were arranged and specific styles of pottery, but also for how people moved through these spaces, invaluable information for an interpreter.
A visiting family enters, and Benjamin puts a young girl with long blonde hair to work pounding cinnamon. She gossips with an older woman about a man in the village and offers seats by the fire or on chests nearby. (“I try to feng shui my Pilgrim house,” she says, making sure there is plenty of space to sit.) The young girl and her sister help Benjamin mix the ingredients, eventually creating a ball of dough that is placed in a sack and lowered into a giant kettle of boiling water. Her young visitors move on.
Cooking has always been an integral part of the Plimoth experience, but the program has taken on new rigor from its earliest days of corn bread served on oak leaves. Kathleen Wall, colonial foodways culinarian at Plimoth, says that when she began as an interpreter in the late 1970s, “the program wasn’t necessarily local or seasonal, because it was mostly theoretical.” In the early 1980s, interpreters began ripping out vegetable plots and replacing them with heirloom varieties — “we didn’t use that word,” she notes — closer to the varieties Pilgrims would have recognized. The animals are now also heritage breed, as is the field of corn outside the village palisade. By having the interpreters cook in the village, on real hearths, they have learned innumerable lessons about colonial cooking. “Suddenly, that little thing in the recipe makes sense,” she says.
Wall is thrilled that the museum focuses on foodways — an all-inclusive approach to food that includes production, procurement, preparation, and presentation — “and not cooking demonstrations.” Today, she says, she is seeing the fruition of decades of research. She is amazed by the number of recipes now available online, and runs a popular blog to share them with others. And the exacting standards are not lost on today’s visitors. “The audience expects more,” Wall says.
A few hours later, Benjamin has pulled her pudding — which looks like a round cake studded with raisins — from the kettle and is covering it with sugar from a colonial-style sugar cone. The interpreters can’t share the food with visitors (“I can’t even imagine how many food-preparation violations we would have,” Benjamin says, looking at the open fire) but I can attest that the pudding was uncommonly good indeed.
Looking the part
Before she enters the village, Benjamin stops in the carriage house where interpreters change for their day in the village. She dresses in a corner of the changing room that holds her not-inconsiderable wardrobe. She plaits her long curly hair into two braids intertwined with a thin white strip of cloth, which she uses to fasten the braids close to her head. She slips into her shift (a white undergarment shaped like a loose dress) and pulls on a pair of thin stockings and then thicker, knit stockings (which end just above the knee) that are tied up with knit garters.
It is one of the first days of chilly autumn weather, so she decides to layer two petticoats (outer skirts) for warmth, the top one made of thick wool. Over that she ties a slightly dirty linen apron before selecting a plain canvas waistcoat (an outer shirt). She ties on a coif, a thin white cap from which the term “coiffed” derives. She adds her hat, and her transformation to 1627 is complete. All told, it is 10 to 15 pounds of clothing.
The wardrobe department is housed in a well-lit room, where on this particular day, three elderly female volunteers hand-stitch repairs to a shift and a burned blanket from the village. Denise Lebica, the historical clothing and textiles manager, oversees the outfitting of every interpreter in the village, no small feat considering the level of detail that can go into a single garment (for example, it takes a volunteer knitting guild about 40 hours to knit a pair of stockings, and each interpreter has two pairs).
“The ’50s and ’60s were what we called the ‘polyester pilgrim,’” Lebica says. But the Deetz era ushered in new realism in Pilgrim dress, eschewing popular images of the black-clad figure with large buckles on his hat. It was not as simple as hanging up the big white collars and dusting off the canvas waistcoats. Most clothing that survived the 1600s was made for royalty or at least the very rich; the everyday clothes of farmers and merchants are more difficult to pin down.
Pioneering researcher Janet Arnold made waves when she released her 1977 book Patterns of Fashion, which provided patterns for detailed clothing from the late 1600s. By the 1990s, Lebica says, “we got a little ahead of ourselves,” adding too many of the finer details, such as silk ribbons, to clothing that would have been quite plain. Since 2009, when she returned to the museum after years away, she has been quietly working to “take it down a notch.”
Given the demands of making hand-woven ribbons, hand-cast buttons, and other fine details used for special-occasion clothing, Lebica uses machines to stitch undergarments that will never be seen by visitors and doesn’t worry about cobbling shoes and other time-consuming but invisible processes. Today’s chemical dyes can approximate vegetable dyes closely enough to be virtually indistinguishable. The wealth of information on period dress now available to her is not the only modern development she uses to create her ersatz Pilgrims; she is an advocate for what she calls “thoughtful compromises.”
Wampanoag Foodways Manager Theresa Okoro wears 17th-century Wampanoag clothing but speaks from a modern perspective.
Today’s cloudy lens on the past
“We’ve always been committed to accuracy,” says Richard Pickering, deputy director of the museum. “What changes is what’s considered accurate.” The last few decades saw experimentation in the ’70s, the consolidation of new methods during the ’80s, and more recently, the fastidious accumulation of data in the service of achieving accuracy. “The interpretation has reached a new level of subtlety,” Pickering says. “There’s so much more information now.”
The tone of the interpretation in the village often says more about the time in which it is performed than about 1627, and today the museum has access to an embarrassment of riches in the historical detail department. But any attempt to re-create the past will necessarily be plagued by difficulties in reconstructing worldviews and understandings entirely foreign to contemporary people.
“Historical museums can deal effectively with culture change only when interpretation is freed, at least in part, from the imposition of 20th-century categories and values,” James Deetz wrote in 1980. This could be a difficult, even impossible, task, Deetz admitted, but he thought it must be attempted; there was too much to learn not to try.
In an essay for the New Yorker, historian and journalist Jill Lepore wrote of the difficulty in understanding the Pilgrims, so important to our national founding myth but so remote from Americans today. “Those poor, misunderstood Puritans,” she writes. “To them we look, in vain, to see ourselves.” She quotes historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who eloquently stated the problem: “The place of the Pilgrim Fathers in American history can best be stated by a paradox. Of slight importance in their own time, they are of great and increasing significance in our time.”
The proper noun, Pilgrims, is a later popularization (by Daniel Webster in 1820): they called themselves Saints and others on their passage ship Strangers. Plymouth might be their first North American landfall, but there is no record any Saint stepped first onto Plymouth Rock. More challenging are matters of faith. They were religious fanatics with a parochial world view. They had fled King James to Holland, and then ran away from assimilation with the Dutch. The village struggles to portray Pilgrim beliefs accurately, which can be a sticky subject when visitors try to establish a spiritual connection with what, even in its own time, was a fringe sect.
If contemplating the Pilgrim worldview without the lens of our own time is a challenge, attempting to make it flesh is a Herculean task. Benjamin (an Orthodox Jew who practices Israeli folk-dancing in her free time) must explain the values of these religious radicals without interjecting her own, enlightened view of their beliefs, and must discuss the Wampanoag people, whom in character she calls “naturals,” while attempting to side-step some of the casual racism of the period toward an indigenous nation that remains in the area today (not to mention in the Wampanoag homesite just down the hill). Plimoth Plantation is both museum and tourist attraction, depending on ticket and gift-shop sales for about 70 percent of its funding. A too-accurate portrayal of the average Pilgrim would most likely send visitors scurrying for the exits.
Benjamin focuses on the lighter side of Pilgrim life, but not simply because it is easier: she believes there’s more to the role of an interpreter than simply parroting lines from primary sources and hoping visitors will pick up on historical details. “We try desperately hard to be historically accurate,” she says, “but in the end, what makes people have the most powerful experience is not the historically accurate jug sitting on the sideboard. It’s having a really interesting, unique, deep interaction.”
At the end of the day, Benjamin leaves the colonial village through the palisade.
The young blonde girl who helped her make the pudding came back at the end of the day to see how it turned out; that, to Benjamin, is the ultimate sign of success. It is, after all, how a lifelong devotion to history began for her. Her dedication to learning the details of her characters’ lives is grounded in the hope that her characters can come to life more completely. It is why she isn’t drawn to academia, although she concedes she’ll probably pursue a graduate degree. She prefers to read historical texts with an eye to the stories she will then be able to tell, and to teach in costume, making the history real for her students.
She takes her responsibility to her characters seriously. Last summer, Benjamin was on a family vacation in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Driving home, Benjamin recognized a historic cemetery and asked her mother to pull over. She got out of the car and happened upon the marker she was searching for almost immediately: the grave of a woman she had played many times in the village.
And then, amid the tourist families, clutching a half-eaten ice cream cone in one hand, she dropped to her knees and began to sob uncontrollably. She “lost it,” as she says. “I just felt like it was a very close connection. You’re sitting here thinking here is the actual, real person…here is the real person who you try to do justice to. And I’m sure I’m not doing them justice.”
Photos by the author. View a larger set of pictures from her visit to Plimoth Plantation.
Cara Parks has written for the New York Times, Slate, and The New Republic. She is the former deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and teaches as an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Next stop: Shanghai.