Jamestown Settlement's Pocahontas exhibit defies expectations

When Holly Johnson pictures Pocahontas, she sees Disney’s animated version from the 1995 film — long black hair, small tan dress and a red tattoo wrapped around her upper arm.

But as the 13-year-old from North Carolina grew up, she realized that wasn’t a realistic portrayal. While exploring Jamestown Settlement’s newest exhibit, Pocahontas Imagined, Saturday morning, Holly was met with dozens of other depictions.

“I think she was different in real life, but in movies they often use false information,” Holly said. When asked how she thinks of Pocahontas, “She’s brave and she’s determined to get things done,” she said.

Pocahontas is a name many people know around the world, museum director Peter Armstrong said. There have been movies made of her story, international advertisements using her likeness.

The newest exhibit, which opened July 15, was timed in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the Powhatan American Indian’s death in 1617.

But the exhibit is not about her life.

“What's different about this exhibition is that it’s not the story of Pocahontas, there are very few objects that related particularly to that period,” Armstrong said. “It’s the 400th anniversary of her death and how is it that a girl who died 400 years ago is still relevant today.”

Armstrong said his favorite part is the last display containing recent photos and stories of young Pamunkey and Mattaponi American Indian girls taken by a local photographer. He said that helps remind people Pocahontas was a real person.

A photo-oriented experience, there were numerous opportunities to snap a picture in the life-size cutout of a 1907 stamp in her image or next to a chalkboard thought bubble with guests’ thoughts etched inside.

Thomas Spence, visiting from Raleigh, North Carolina, explored the exhibit with his daughter, girlfriend and her daughter.

“It’s different than what I expected,” Spence said. “I didn’t expect so much memorabilia.”

Before Saturday, he didn’t know that Pocahontas had a more private name — Matoaka — or that after she married English colonist John Rolfe in 1614, she was baptized, which came with another name change to Rebecca.

Spence said that fit with many other facets of American history.

“She didn’t get to keep her name. She had to have a name change to be accepted in white America, the same as other nations that had to adapt,” Spence said. “(The exhibit) talks about the baptism but not why.”

He said the exhibit glosses over some of that important context.  

Zack Kopplin was finishing up an annual history trip with his grandmother, Marlene Kopplin. Visiting from Missouri, Jamestown Settlement was one of the last stops.

A junior history buff, he was already familiar with Pocahontas’ backstory.

“I think of her as an explorer who was taken away from her family and tribe and forced to marry this guy,” said Zack, 13. “The Disney impression is very fake and it impresses her as a very vulnerable person and how she really had nothing but I think she was very strong.” 

The exhibit runs through Jan. 28. For more information visit www.historyisfun.org/jamestown-settlement/pocahontas-imagined/.

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