Voyaging through History: the Meanings of the Mayflower, 1620-2020

Project Details


In 2020 the Anglo-American world will mark the 400th anniversary of the trans--Atlantic Mayflower voyage. A range of celebratory activities are being planned through a 'Mayflower400' network, from the construction of a sea-going replica of the ship, to parades, festivals, and performances. Pressure groups are already lobbying national governments to officially recognise the commemoration as an event of international cultural importance. Intensive and focused interest in the story of the Mayflower is not a new phenomenon, especially in the United States, where it is the bedrock of the nation's 'origin story'. But the tale of the Pilgrim's voyage has also captured the British imagination - despite, however, its absence from academic studies. There were periods of notable interest in the mid- and then late-19th century; during and following the First and Second World War; and in the last large anniversary in 1970. At both a local and national level, the tale of the Pilgrims' journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and their escape from religious persecution, has proved to have an enduring legacy for individuals, institutions, and communities. A wide and rich range of novels, plays, films, alongside memorials, statues, and curated historical buildings, are testament to the cultural, political and religious significance of the Mayflower.

Drawing on an intensive analysis of these visual, textual, and physical materials, this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project will be the first to provide an authoritative and critical analysis of the powerful draw of the Mayflower story in British culture. Acknowledging that the
meaning of the Mayflower voyage has altered substantially to suit specific agendas at different points in history, it will also provide a timely lens through which to view the contemporary vogue for historical commemoration. A critical view, across a long chronological range and through a broad thematic scope, will give key insights into the relationship between historical culture and religion, Anglo-American cultural diplomacy, and local tourism and place-making. Academic articles and a landmark monograph will situate the changing meaning of the Mayflower in the larger context of the place of the past in British society. An interdisciplinary conference and subsequent edited journal issue will expand this approach to a broader academic audience.

Connecting our research with local communities, we will also support and inform both local and national Mayflower 2020 celebrations and projects. Workshops, public debates, oral history interviews, and theatrical performances will encourage public stakeholders to reflect on aspects of the historical retelling of the Mayflower story, advancing a critical perspective on the relevance of the voyage in the present. A website, created and hosted by the University of Exeter Digital Humanities Team (guaranteed for 5 years beyond the project end), and populated with features and a study-guide written by members of the project team and other experts, will give historical context to contemporary interaction with the Mayflower story. It will include an interactive map that will uniquely locate the commemoration of the Mayflower in visual and written content
across a long-period of history. Public events at the British Library will also extend the importance of the Mayflower to wider contemporary debates about history and the commemoration of conflict, not just in Britain but the USA and wider world too, while our academic support and oral history interviewing at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton (who are producing a Mayflower musical) will enrich local understanding.

Combining extensive original academic research with clearly focused public engagement work, this project will thus draw together a rich story in the British past and present to enhance both academic and non-academic understandings of historical culture.
Effective start/end date02/10/201817/06/2021


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