Wampum World at the Albany Institute

Rensselaerwyck Native American deed 1708

A portion of deed for land in Rensselaerwyck signed in 1708, from the Albany Institute's collection. The pictographic characters are the signatures of Native Americans.

A new multimedia exhibit called Wampum World opened at the Albany Institute this past weekend. In it artist Renee Ridgway looks at the role wampum played in this area during the 17th century as Native American and Dutch cultures met and interacted, and how some of those threads carry on today:

"Wampum World is about wampum, which is made from shell. Historically, it had manifold functions for Native Americans in various aspects of their societies and is still considered sacred today. In contrast, Dutch settlers, having recognized the value of wampum for Native Americans, used wampum in exchange with European goods in order to procure beaver pelts, as part of the seventeenth century trade triangle 'beaver, wampum, hoes.' Metal coinage was not readily available in the New World, therefore wampum served as currency. Wampum World visually elucidates this historical exchange system and present day usages of wampum from various perspectives."

We got a chance to see the exhibit this past Friday afternoon, and it includes a variety of different works and archival documents. Among those old docs are deeds for the transfer of land from Native Americans to the Dutch in this area -- for sections of Bethlehem or islands in the Hudson River near Albany or other similar plots.

Other items provides a peek into the local culture and economy of the time. We were struck by the fact that there was a wampum "mint" in the Albany poorhouse during the mid 17th century, and the residents there were required to produce wampum.

One of the recurring themes that emerges is how people interpret the idea of "value," which objects accumulate monetary or spiritual value based on culture, and the ways those items end up serving as currency of some sort.

Wampum World will be on display through June 18 at the Albany Institute. Ridgway has also built a website for the exhibit with video and other materials organized by topics and places.

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