- By Chez Oxendine
- Arts and Culture
Technology already intersects with Native history at The Mashantucket Pequot Research Center and Museum in Ledyard, Connecticut. The tribal museum’s curriculum and exhibits tell stories old and new, whether through a full-scale 16th century Pequot village or classes that blend high-tech with tribal heritage.
Now, with help from one of the tribe’s technology firms, the museum could add things like holograms and fully immersive exhibits to the mix, according to Executive Director Josh Carter.
“We’re building this experience where we teach kids coding while also teaching them how to make a traditional wampum belt,” Carter told Tribal Business News. “We’re combining those two worlds, which is only possible through this relationship that we’ve formed. We’re blending old with the new.”
The new relationship with WONDR NATION, an online gaming entertainment venture owned by the Mashantucket tribe, includes monetary support alongside suggestions and plans to bring new technology to old culture, says the company’s CEO, Anika Howard.
“This is an intersection between art and technology as a way to elevate storytelling,” Howard said. “We’ve gone from oral history traditions to written history, from generation to generation, now we have things like video games to create immersive experiences that do the same thing. But it’s storytelling, and it happens in so many different ways.”
WONDR NATION, a rebranding of the Mashantucket Pequot Interactive firm, has already collaborated with the museum in constructing a lab and STEM curriculum for younger visitors. The sponsorship is an expansion of that relationship, Howard said.
Pledged support includes developing virtual reality and holographic additions to exhibits, improvements to the lab, and doubling down on working STEM classes and workshops into the museum’s operations, Howard said.
“As a tribal entity, we wanted to figure out how we could do our part in preserving and celebrating our rich cultural history,” Howard said. “We have a technology focus, so we felt that we had a unique opportunity to elevate the experience that the museum and research center were already providing.”
The push for new technology in the museum’s exhibits exemplifies a rapidly growing trend in museums across the country. A 2021 report from data aggregator Statista that collected responses from 150 museums worldwide found that 78% of respondents planned to implement new technologies and digital formats for their exhibits going forward.
Trade publication Museums + Heritage Advisor also found last year that, broadly speaking, those technologies ranged from binaural, immersive audio to three-dimensional photography of delicate or precious artifacts to holographic displays. In addition to making exhibits more broadly accessible across wider hours, new technology allows a younger audience — for whom interactivity is generally more important — to engage with these displays in new ways, reports software design firm DITDOT.
For the Mashantucket Pequot, the new sponsorship and collaboration with WONDR NATION will help the museum step into several roles at once, Howard said: cultural preservation, sharing the tribe’s story with others, and most recently, helping develop a pipeline of tribal talent through STEM education. In addition to small classes and events for children, the Wonder Smart Lab also hosts a high-school student as part of an apprentice program that can prepare them to pursue a career in STEM.
That can help Native students, who often struggle to find purchase in STEM fields, circumvent some of the barriers facing them in that particular set of industries, Howard said.
“We’re saying that, okay, you don’t have to have a traditional path, let’s work with you to figure out what kind of path fits you (and) how do we get you connected and certified with all these different things so you can be part of this industry?” Howard said. “A big part of what we want to do is make sure at every step of the development cycle that young people have a way to interact and learn what’s possible.”
The museum already sees roughly 40,000 students come through its doors each year. Improved technology and more immersive exhibits could increase that number by attracting new visitors from surrounding areas like Rhode Island and Massachusetts — and eventually, the entire country.
That’s to say nothing of the virtual opportunities more technologically advanced exhibits could attract, Carter said.
“We have the chance to take some of this programming that we offer to local students and offer that to any student across the world,” Carter said. “Even hands-on programs, like the wampum belt workshop, could be taught online.”
The sponsorship kicked things off in late May with the groups’ first joint event, a symposium for artisan entrepreneurs. The museum invited local creators to share their needs and perspectives on cultural preservation and entrepreneurship - which brought more artists into the museum, and helped share success stories with the community, Howard said.
Howard described that event as a way to cross-promote WONDR NATION’s efforts, the museum’s efforts, and local artisans’ efforts in a move to gain more exposure for all three.
“We wanted to use this as an opportunity to introduce more people to the museum, because of course we want the museum to be a thriving source of museum dollars for the tribe, as well as being able to talk and share the breadth of all the great things that are happening here,” Howard said. “I think we looked at this as a way to really talk about and cross promote the overall experience.”
Carter said the symposium gave the museum a chance to support local entrepreneurs, and by extension, economic opportunity for tribal members and the tribe itself.
“When you understand what a healthy economy looks like, its foundations will always be entrepreneurship,” Carter said. “The symposium really provided another layer of opportunity to work with some local artists, because art will always be one of the traditional tools we use here at the museum. There’s no doubt we plan to expand and certainly create more economic benefits for the tribe - that’s certainly part of our goal.”
The group’s primary goal is still “telling the Pequot story,” Carter said.