The Chips are Down for the Pequot Museum

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By Walter W. Woodward SUMMER 2015

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Last December, in a move that surprised many members of the state’s museum and history communities, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center closed its doors, laying off 45 of its 55 employees. Fortunately, the hiatus was seasonal, a wintertime shutdown to allow the 16-year-old museum to reorganize, strategize, and prepare for an uncertain future.

WWW Chips are Down Summer 2015Larger and arguably more engaging and informative than the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the $225 million (as reported by The New York Times, November 30, 2014) museum and research center is a tribal, Native American, state, and national cultural treasure. Within its seven-acre, environmentally sensitive footprint are a reconstructed Pequot village, powerful exhibits detailing the history of the Pequot people from the last ice age to the present, a renowned research center, auditorium, restaurant, gift shop, and even a 185-foot-high observation platform.

From the museum’s inception, construction costs and the majority of the operating expenses have been funded from Pequot gaming revenues. But supporting such a grand cultural enterprise alone has been challenging, even when Connecticut’s tribal casinos had a near monopoly on New England gaming income. Today, with those revenues down more than 35 percent from their 2004 peak (according to state Department of Consumer Protection data), and the expected creation of several rival casinos whose revenues will go elsewhere, the museum has been forced to move quickly to scale back its costs to a sustainable level while creating new revenue streams to fund operations. This is a challenge we all have a stake in.

Jason Mancini, the museum’s recently appointed director, outlined a number of steps the museum, which reopened in May for the summer season, is implementing to help assure its future. Among these are:

  • Developing a formal and independent board of directors drawn from academic, business, and native communities
  • Strengthening bonds with other tribal communities and giving them opportunities to represent their histories and cultures at the museum
  • Becoming a five-state center for public-school education regarding the role of indigenous people in American history
  • Promoting indigenous artists, food producers, and economies more actively through the facility’s restaurants, a retail store, a new artists’ cooperative, and a Native artists-in-residence program
  • Partnering with colleges and universities to develop a regional indigenous studies consortium
  • Continuing to conduct “history-changing” research in the museum labs and archives

“It is critical,” Mancini notes, “that we build a culture of cultivation and philanthropy. People have always thought that because we enjoy tribal support, that can fund every operation. It’s simply not true. Without a lot of generous aid from many new well wishers, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center is in peril.”

That is where you and I come in. If you have not visited the museum and research center, do so this summer. Once you see it, you’ll understand why so many people are working tirelessly to preserve this gem of an institution. If you are already familiar with it, then please join me in getting actively involved in its support and preservation. The Pequot Museum welcomes volunteers and new members and is seeking to collaborate with schools, colleges and universities, businesses, science and cultural organizations, scouting groups, and other community partners in mutually beneficial ways. To learn more contact Gayle Hargreaves at 860-396-6838 or development@pequotmuseum.org.

Walter W. Woodward is the Connecticut state historian. For information about upcoming talks he is giving visit the Office of the State Historian’s Web site at cthistory.org.

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