Tomaquag Museum Featured in the Westerly Sun!

Published: January 25, 2015 | Last Modified: January 25, 2015 06:26AM

By DALE P. FAULKNER Sun Staff Writer

Westerly could become the new home of the Tomaquag Museum.

Currently located in a leased house in the Arcadia Village section of Exeter, the Native American museum has long hoped for a larger space that is specifically designed as a museum. For the past 1½ years, the museum has been working with the Westerly Land Trust, discussing a possible collaboration that could involve the museum building on one of the trust’s parcels.

“We’ve outgrown our space as we’ve matured as an organization,” said Lorén Spears, the museum’s executive director. 

Spears and Kelly Presley, executive director of the land trust, both characterized the talks as preliminary and said a specific location for the museum has not been determined. 

The museum, while not affiliated with any particular tribe or group of Native American people, is focused on the indigenous people of Southern New England, particularly the Narragansetts and Niantics, both of whom lived in what is now Westerly.

The two organizations see a natural fit between the museum’s focus on Native American culture and the land trust’s commitment to preserving the environment and culture.

“The museum’s mission overlaps with the land trust’s interest in the natural world and our connection to it and a desire to educate the public about the environment. The two groups seem to complement each other,” Presley said.

While a new home remains something of a dream, the museum is taking concrete steps toward its goal. A $32,000 grant from the Lattner Family Foundation was used to hire Oyster Works LLC, a Charlestown architectural firm, which developed a master plan. The plan was unveiled in October during the museum’s annual Honoring Dinner. 

A $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is being used for architectural design and design of the new exhibit space.

The museum will soon develop a business plan and feasibility study, Spears said. The business plan will be based, in part, on visits museum staff are taking to other museums to learn how they remain sustainable as well as to glean new programming ideas.

A Rhode Island Foundation grant of $12,000 is being used to create a development plan.

Spears estimated another two to three years will be spent on the pre-construction period, a phase she said is likely to cost about $400,000 before it is completed. Initial estimates indicate the museum building, including an amphitheater and story gallery, will cost about $5 million. 

“We’re excited, we don’t think its insurmountable but we have to be strategic and go about it in manageable chunks,” Spears said.

To encourage support and enthusiasm, the museum hopes to develop a booklet and presentation on its website about the plans for a new building.

Spears, who is of Narragansett descent, said the museum’s current home is so tight on space that visits are by usually by appointment to prevent large numbers of guests arriving at the same time only to find there is no room to move about the space. Additionally, she said a contemporary climate-controlled atmosphere is needed to preserve and protect the museum’s holdings.

“We know that the space limits our ability to do what we do best — educating the public about Native American culture and history,” Spears said.

Founded in 1958, parts of the museum’s collection are “hundreds of years old,” Spears said.

“The museum is all about the story. The story of contemporary and Native Americans and their history,” Spears said.

Working with the land trust reflects the museum’s philosophy of partnership, Spears said. As examples of other collaborative ventures she said she has made presentations at land trust events. The museum has also worked with the Mashuntucket Pequot Museum, Brown University, Bryant University, the University of Rhode Island and the Warwick Museum of Art.

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