Mashantucket Pequot’s re-envisioning museum
Last November, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council asked Joshua Carter to be the interim director at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center. Carter said he was humbled by and appreciated the chance.
“What an opportunity to play even the smallest role in being able to help our community to better understand how we came to be and to let the rest of the world know who we are,” he said.
It’s an opportunity that Carter will continue to have. In the spring, he was named permanent executive director of the museum.
Tribal Council Chairman Rodney Butler said, “When we made him the interim, we were actually thinking, let’s see – he’s a family member, he’s certainly earned it, he’s proven himself through his leadership. And it actually worked out better than anybody could have imagined.”
Carter seemed like a good choice, Butler said, because “Josh is just passionate about our people to begin with. He’s a history buff at that. Combining that passion with his incredible talent to manage people and be a strategic thinker – it was almost like he was built for it. “
Carter said it was “a huge breath of fresh air” to be in the museum building. He felt comfortable with the administrative part of the job but said, “I was also learning a ton in relation to collections and archaeology (and so on).”
‘It’s nothing short of amazing’
Carter, 46, is a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, and he had worked in the Mashantucket Pequot’s Human Resources Department for a dozen years. Before becoming museum director, he was director of Tribal and Native American Relations at Foxwoods Resort Casino, where he served as the tribe’s Native American preference officer.
He also carries the tribe’s cultural title of “Pipe Carrier”; with that, he has the responsibility of “evoking healing within the tribal community by way of the sacred pipe ceremony.”
One of the biggest surprises for Carter when becoming the head of the museum was realizing the depth and breadth of the collections and archives. He has loved spending time with items that belonged to his relatives hundreds of years ago.
The museum tells the history of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, particularly, Carter noted, “what we consider to be a monumental historical event that pertains to all of the history of America; that’s the Pequot War. To have direct descendants that were a part of this and to understand intimately what that event looked like and what preceded that event, and for us to be able to have a conversation in the space we’re in and what’s in Mashantucket now – for Mashantucket to exist, period, is an anomaly. It’s something I’m amazed by every time I pull up to this building because I’m reminded of what happened and what our ancestors and family members had to do to allow us to be here and have this conversation today. It’s nothing short of amazing.”
“Truth be told, I don’t have a lot of experience at all as it relates to the different museum components,” Carter said.
But the council members saw something in him that made them think he’d be a great fit for the museum job on a permanent basis.
The four directors before Carter had extensive museum experience, and Butler said having someone like Carter “with a fresh perspective that trusts his team and leans on them for their expertise and doesn’t need to be the expert in the room has just proven incredibly valuable. The morale over there is lifted, people are working harder than they ever have before, and they believe in the mission and the vision that he’s put forward.”
And Carter has nothing but praise for his team.
“My heart is here in this building, and not just the physical structure itself … the team is unbelievable, they’re strong, they’re committed,” he said. “They’re the definition of what we call team players. We all have these different titles, but folks will generally jump in to do whatever needs to be done.”
He mentioned that the museum often hosts events, from weddings to conferences, and you might find the director of marketing, for instance, helping set up chairs for an event.
The museum has a staff of 16 employees. That compares with 200 when the site opened in August of 1998, Carter noted.
“So a lot of changes have gone down in the almost 25 years (since the opening),” he said. And, he added, “We’re in the process, I feel … of really re-envisioning the institution of the museum.”
“One of the major challenges and opportunities we have is based on the original thought process in creating the museum, which was centered around hardware, if you would. You had these static exhibits – they’re amazing, no question about it,” he said.
Today, though, everything is about software, he said, so “you need to be dynamic, you need to be able to change, you need to be able to take content and move it around, do all these different things.”
The plan is to take advantage of modern technology for a permanent Pequot women’s exhibit that’s in the works, as well as a permanent Schemitzun exhibit.
The goal is to engage more, not just with the Pequot community and Sister Nations, but also with people around the globe.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to reach folks all over the world,” Carter said.
An amazing place
Carter grew up in Wakefield, Rhode Island, and, after his parents divorced, his father moved to Mashantucket when Josh was about 9. It was around the time that the tribe opened the bingo hall in 1986.
Josh recalls spending time there during summers and how the natural areas provided a great environment for a boy: “This place was amazing – there was nothing here but frogs and snails and snakes,” he recalled.
He loved, too, that so many of his cousins and aunties were here. (Rodney Butler is a cousin.)
Carter eventually started his career with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. He earned his associate’s degree in business management from the Community College of Rhode Island.
When he was around age 30, Carter also found something else that he’s become passionate about: the traditional art of wampum. (Wampum are cylindrical beads made from shells by Eastern Woodland tribes; the beads were strung together and used for ceremonial and decorative purposes, as well as eventually as a type of currency.)
“The gentleman who taught me, we half-jokingly but certainly intentionally talk about being starving artists when we grow up. Because this is where I’ll land eventually. There’s no doubt,” Carter said.
Carter said the team is in process of re-envisioning the museum, particularly in terms of trying to decolonize it. A lot of the resources and tools at the museum are what Native Americans would consider colonizer tools. Paper, for instance, is not a traditional resource in an oral-tradition society.
“We find ourselves in this space surrounded by colonizer tools. Not saying these tools are not applicable, but (it would be better) to be able to discern what is the traditional way of learning, of being — traditional resources,” he said. “I feel as though we have this responsibility to pivot and change how we do what we do what we do here to focus more on what is specific to us in order for us, one, to continue to breathe life into our culture but also for us to be in a better position to authentically tell our story.”
Anything related to the arts, for instance, might be a more authentic way to tell that story, he said. He noted that during, say, the veterans powwow the tribe holds in November, they use elements of the arts, including the spoken word, which he said is very powerful in traditional society — as opposed to, for instance, a piece of paper. Vital, too, are aspects of song, dance and crafts.
So, he said, it would be more authentic “utilizing those resources to express ourselves, to interact, to tell our story …. as opposed to, you know, having a presentation on these archaeological artifacts.”
‘A special person’
As for what Carter is like as a person, Butler, who is his cousin, said, “He’s just one of the most genuine, humble, thoughtful, spiritual people you will ever meet, all bundled up in one body. He really is a special person, I don’t think there’s any other way to say it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to meet many great leaders and just people in general in my travels over the past two decades in leadership, and he stands out. Just with his level of compassion I think – there’s no fakeness about him. He truly cares about everybody around.”
And, he adds, Carter truly cares about the museum.
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