Priceless Bits of History: Tiny Tomaquag Museum Gets USDA Grant

With the help of a USDA grant, the tiny Tomaquag Museum in Rhode Island will be able to better arrange and organize its impressive collection.
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The 40,000-year-old wampum necklace may be the most impressive piece on view at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, but that may change when 20,000 more archived items are made accessible to the public. The tiny exhibit space is roughly half of the 2,430-square-foot building, and there are plans in the works to expand. Until that happens, exhibiting the massive collection is a challenge that will be eased with a $30,000 USDA Rural Business Development Grant.

Much of the collection is original to the Southeastern New England nations, but many items have been donated or gifted from other parts of the country. “Visitors only see about five percent of our collection on exhibit,” said Lorén Spears, Tomaquag’s executive director.

Photo by Christina Rose

This burl bowl was found in nearby Hope Valley, Rhode Island. Burls, which are external growths on trees, are extremely hard, and must be burned like dug out canoes rather than carved.

“For the majority of our existence, we have not had a paid staff,” Spears said. The museum has been operated by volunteers since a private collection was donated in 1957, and the last time the collection was recorded was in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The search is on for a person with extensive museum skills to develop a digital database of the items and information, which will be available via computer kiosk in the museum and later through the museum’s website.

Photo by Christina Rose

Loren Spears, Tomaquag’s executive director, holds a display box with Narragansett Sub-Chief Strong Horse’s cuffs—one old and one new, which was beaded by him. From the Chief Strong Horse Collection.

The museum’s focus has been on Southern New England artifacts, “However, we don’t ever say no. As the elders tell us, we say, ‘Thank you’ and then we do what we need to do,” Spears said. “For example this object here,” she said while opening a box containing a parrot feather headpiece. “One woman came to us in the dead of winter last year and said if you don't take it, I am throwing it in the trash. We found out it was a ceremonial rite of passage headpiece from a tribe in Brazil. When the opportunity to return it to its community arises, we will. But in the meantime we can keep it in safe. There might be other things that need to go back home. We won’t know that until we can get a better handle on what we have.”

Pulling several handmade boxes from shelves, Spears brought out items from their most recent acquisition: a collection of 350 items donated by 93-year-old Narragansett Sub-Chief Strong Horse, who donated objects he acquired over his lifetime. Spears said that Chief Strong Horse is the last living sub-chief from the 20th century. He can still help to identify the pieces, but many other items in the museum were simply found by local non-Natives while digging in their gardens. Items in the photos indicate these kinds of objects that need documentation, cataloguing and research.

Photo by Christina Rose

This war shirt bib, believed by Northern Cheyenne Phillip Whiteman to have been made in Montana, is a new acquisition from the Chief Strong Horse collection. Strong Horse received the item as a gift, though more is not known at this time.

Donated pieces continue to come in regularly. “We get people who call us up and say, ‘This has been in my family for a long time.’ Yesterday, a woman brought a leather dress from an estate sale. I’m sure it has a story to tell. Maybe not every piece will find its story, but lots of them will.”

As if to prove the importance of the grant, a museum visitor was perusing the exhibit when Spears carefully removed the string of 40,000-year-old wampum beads from the display case. Once Connecticut artist Theresa Zwart-Ludeman understood the age and source of the tiny delicate beads, she gasped. Though surprised by the small size of the gallery, she said about the string of beads, “I was astounded by it. I felt like I was looking into the past, and it gave me a profound feeling to think it’s been 40,000 years that the Native Americans have been here. It made me want to learn more.”

Photo by Christina Rose

Spears holds a Narragansett birch bark makuk, or container, which were often used for collecting maple sap. Spears said that scientists have examined it for water tightness and declared it an engineering marvel.