Pilgrim Hall Museum, c.a. 1900.

Pilgrim’s Progress: An Interview with Rebecca Griffith

By: Molly Liolios

Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA. Photograph by Giorgio Galeotti
Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA. Photograph by Giorgio Galeotti

Hidden in the lower levels of Pilgrim Hall Museum and camouflaged among the exhibit of the Pilgrim journey is a door leading to the archives. There is a series of makeshift offices, built of plywood and filing cabinets. This is where curator and archivist Rebecca Griffith spends her days.

Museums have held a place in Becca’s heart for the majority of her life. As a child, her family would often vacation in areas of historic interest, attending museums of various collections. There, Griffith would spend hours analyzing the artifacts, taking in every detail, carefully reading the descriptions and that sparked the start of her fascination with material culture. “I had always loved books and reading, and of course history,” she said with a smile. She credits and her undergraduate internship for solidifying the idea of archives as a career.

“I cataloged a book collection in this weird place in Philadelphia, it’s called Fonthill Castle, and it’s this very eccentric bachelor who built this concrete castle in the suburbs of Philadelphia,” she remembered fondly. There was an assortment of tiles he made from his business as well as his collection of incredible rare volumes form the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It was these books that started Becca on the road towards becoming an archivist and inspired her to pursue graduate school.

Fonthill Castle, Doylestown, PA. Unaltered photograph by James Loesch, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jal33/5437285992
Fonthill Castle, Doylestown, PA. Unaltered photograph by James Loesch, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jal33/5437285992

Griffith attended Simmons College and earned a degree in Public History, wanting to continue to work with both paper documents and three-dimensional objects. It was there that she learned the skills to be able to interpret history for the public as well as archival and object handling. She put these skills to use with an internship at Pilgrim Hall Museum, which led to a full-time job with the departure of two directors, the curator, and the retirement of their archivist. Her title is Associate-Curator but she does the work of two departments, not only creating exhibits but also performing all duties with the museums archives. She credits good luck with her position as a fairly recent graduate as the competition for jobs in the field is very steep in this area, joking “you just have to be at a place and show that you’re useful so they’ll want you around and eventually they’ll start paying you.”

Rebecca began to remark on her current job at Pilgrim Hall, talking passionately on how she loves what she’s doing, the excitement and the activity never leave her a dull moment. She receives the most enjoyment out of learning about the history of the objects and documents she works with, stating that she learns something new with every acquisition. The Pilgrim Hall archives covers a broad assortment of documents, beginning with seventeenth century documents and ending with current donations from various clubs and organizations around Plymouth. “Archivally, we really took on the role of the Plymouth Historical Society [there isn’t one] and really just collected everything Plymouth related document wise.” She continued with their extensive photograph collection with the majority containing pictures from the 1800s.

William Brewster
Mayflower passenger William Brewster’s copy of the works of Seneca found its way into the collections of the Pilgrim Hall Museum

Wanting to get an insiders opinion, I asked what her favorite item in their possession was, especially as they have such an extensive archival collection. She surprised me with a book not transparently connected to the Pilgrims at all. It is a 1614 edition of the works of Seneca, a Roman naturalist and a favorite of the Pilgrims. However, it wasn’t the subject matter of the book that constituted it as her favorite; it was the clear provenance of the book. The inside front cover catalogued the history of who owned the book previously and exactly how it came to the following owner, which included William Brewster. An artifact such as this is unique to collections as there are usually mysteries surrounding the objects. Griffith noted that although artifacts like this are great for a number of reasons, she enjoys uncovering the history of documents, adding that without it, the job would be very boring. And thankfully, the majority of artifacts in their collection have a mystery to them.

As Pilgrim Hall is the oldest continuously operating museum in the country, they have been collecting items for over two hundred years, and with that have seen a change in museums standards and record keeping. Griffith and her interns have attempted to piece together the history through museum records, combing through boxes to try to and find any information, which was time consuming as their records are not digitized. However, the interns have begun the tedious process of digitizing their photo collection and transcribing museum records for online consumption. There is no current program in place, but Griffith hopes to have it up and running by the fall of 2018.

Currently, Plymouth is gearing up for the 400th anniversary of the landing of Pilgrims which has left Griffith with little time for anything else. Pilgrim Hall Museums is currently in collaboration with Plymouth 400, a committee solely dedicated to the celebration, to create a community needlework tapestry showcasing the history of Plymouth. She hopes that this creation will not only be a commemoration of the event but a tangible artifact that will last for the next hundred years and beyond.  

1620 stamp on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth will celebrate its 400th year in 2020.
1620 stamp on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth will celebrate its 400th year in 2020.

As the conversation about the upcoming celebration events dwindled, I asked Becca what the greatest advice she was given, hoping that she could pass on this wisdom to this up-and-coming grad student. She began with advice on publishing, saying to find a newsletter, journal, or magazine that will accept your work. “Pick something you’re interested in and get it published…get your name out there.” She said not to be discouraged at failure or rejection, whether it be from a job or journal- that it will happen and that’s okay. With each answer of no there’s a new opportunity waiting in the wings, and to remind yourself that you’re doing what you love to do, closing with the fact that “you’ve picked this particular field for a reason because it’s something that you’re passionate about. Don’t forget that.”

As she led me back through the exhibit and up the stairs we paused to look at her most recent exhibit on wedding dresses from the 1600s through 2010s. She reflected on it fondly, emphasizing the hard work and long days it took to complete it but highlighting the joy and feeling of achievement it gave her. As we said our goodbyes, I found myself replaying the words she had said about passion, clearly reflected in her work, and I felt a new sense of excitement and determination in me in regards to my own path. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll be sitting across from an archival history grad student answering their questions and, hopefully, filling them with a zest for discovery and pride in their work.

 

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