The Arts

A centuries-old misunderstanding is at the heart of the Albany Institute’s new exhibition

A centuries-old misunderstanding is at the heart of the Albany Institute’s new exhibition

Busycotypus Canaliculatum, by Renée Ridgway, watercolor on paper, 2009, courtesy of the artist.

What is wampum? That’s the question at the heart of the new installation at the Albany Institute of History & Art. “Wampum World: An Art Installation by Renée Ridgway” is, per the gallery notes, “an artist’s interpretation of the changing meaning of wampum from culture to culture and time period to time period.” The multimedia show incorporates watercolors, collage works and objects, and draws heavily on the Albany Institute’s collection of maps, artifacts and art.

So, what is wampum? One dictionary definition is, “a quantity of small cylindrical beads made by North American Indians from quahog shells, strung together and worn as a decorative belt or other decoration or used as money.”

But it’s not that simple. As Ridgway explained in a recent tour of the exhibit, to Native Americans, “Wampum is sacred. Wampum is holy, a living thing.” And as she later explained, when the Dutch began to see wampum as money, to be traded with the Iroquois and Mohicans for beaver pelts, it was probably not exclusively made by Native Americans.

There is no wampum in the installation; there is one small example of beadwork on display, made by Ridgway and presumably to provide a sense of what went into making wampum, but there is no wampum in the show.

The Netherlands artist was in town all last week for the installation of the show. The installation was not complete at the time of the tour, so she led us around the room in a way that made us have to puzzle out how the various parts fit together.

But they do fit together, and highlight the thorny questions of cultural understanding and misunderstanding that plagued the relations between Native Americans and European settlers.

So there is the (probably inaccurate) portrait of Sir William Johnson’s house, and his large round table (on which a beaver pelt has been placed). Johnson was the largest landowner in the colonies, owning 140,000 acres and 60 slaves. The Irishman was also a crucial figure in Britain’s relations with the Mohawks; he learned enough of the Mohawks’ language to communicate with them, and was taught their protocols of wampum ceremonies. It was through him that the Mohawks attached their fate to that of the British.

There are the portraits of the “Four Kings”–three Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and one Mohican–who visited the court of Queen Anne in England, 1710. (When they attended the theater, Ridgway explained, they had to sit on the stage so the rest of the audience could get a look at them.) And there are a selection of land deeds between Dutch settlers and Native Americans, another fundamental source of cultural misunderstanding. (Pictured below: Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row (Emperor of the Six Nations), painted by Jan Verelst (c. 1648-1734), engraved by John Simon (1675-1754), c. 1710, Mezzotint, Albany Institute of History & Art, bequest of Mrs. Henry M. Sage.)


“The idea of selling something isn’t in their [the Mohicans] vocabulary,” she said, and, historically this ran straight into the European understanding of ownership and real estate transactions, shown here in the series of deeds that reflect the Dutch need to document everything. It was the Native Americans’ belief in the commons vs. Europeans’ organizing society around private property.

There are Ridgway’s own artworks: a watercolor rendering of Long Island, known to the Algonquians as “Sewanthacky,” as a string of shells because Sewanthacky means a land where shells are collected. There are carefully painted renderings of specific shells of the type used to make wampum, and an installation of shells on which an image is projected; you should go to the AIHA and puzzle that one out for yourself. (Pictured below: Sewanhacky, by Renée Ridgway, watercolor on paper, 2009, courtesy of the artist.)


There’s are maps of the “new world,” including the first map which includes Native American regions alongside European settlements. One map of Dutch Albany shows the alms, or poor house on Pearl Street. Excavations of the site in the 1980s, before the construction of the KeyBank building, showed evidence that the poor had been put to work making wampum: “The poor were creating wealth,” Ridgway said, making what the Dutch considered currency. There’s also a reward notice posted for the capture of “Jacob the Wampum Maker” from an 18th-century Philadelphia-area jail, suggesting that this practice may have been widespread. And another notice warning of quality standards in the making of wampum.

There’s a huge Dutch “kas,” or wooden cupboard, on display; dating to the period, the “kas” held clothes, linens and other valuables.

There are two video screens, where you can sit and watch European-descended historians and commentators explain their view of wampum on the left screen, and Native Americans explain their views on the right. Two traditions, two points of view. No “one” answer.

And there’s a website. This is what really ties the show together. You can access it via a mouse and a large screen at the exhibition, or check it out at your leisure before you visit. The page shows a series of tags; when you click on one of these words, it brings up a video of someone speaking on the subject. It also creates a bead on a string–the more you explore the videos, the longer your own wampum string becomes

Wampum as sacred object vs. wampum as currency: A question that still makes us think about communication, colonization and cultural (mis)understandings.

“Wampum World” will be on view at the Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany, through June 18. For events related to the exhibition, visit

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