PROVINCETOWN — Since David Weidner became the executive director of the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association of Provincetown — better known as the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, or PMPM — in January 2017, the universe has thrown plenty of wrenches in the organization’s works, including the pandemic, the cancelation of the Provincetown 400 celebration, and a series of delays on the High Pole Hill inclined elevator project.
But as PMPM gears up for opening day of the 2023 season — it will be Saturday, April 1 (no joke) — Weidner says the major elements of his vision for the oldest nonprofit on Cape Cod have fallen into place. The elevator is up and running. The museum will be configured the same as last fall, with centerpiece galleries on Wampanoag history and LGBTQ stories in Provincetown.
“Pilgrims are people on a journey,” Weidner told the Independent. “Our narrative of what a pilgrim is in 1620 is not necessarily the pilgrim of 2020, 2022, or 2023. We welcome pilgrims to our shores every day, coming from land, sea, or sky.”
With a cornerstone laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 and a dedication by his successor, William Howard Taft, in 1910, the 252-foot granite monument had an auspicious start. It was built to highlight the Mayflower’s arrival in what became Provincetown Harbor — an event overshadowed in the narrative of American history by her subsequent anchorage at Plymouth.
The museum itself has long featured a mix of artifacts representing Provincetown’s natural, colonial, and maritime history. But during his tenure, Weidner has introduced a mission with the slogan T.R.U.T.H. — an acronym for Tolerance, Respect, Unity, Trust, and “His/Her/Their-story,” as he puts it.
In 2020, PMPM hired the Native American-led agency SmokeSygnals to curate and install Our Story: The Complicated Relationship of the Indigenous Wampanoag and the Mayflower Pilgrims, which debuted in August of that year for a truncated pandemic season. The exhibit, which showcases Wampanoag culture before colonization, occupies the Pilgrim Wing, which used to house a stodgy exhibit on the Mayflower. (A dimly lit large-scale model of the ship is still on display at the back of the room.)
“It’s kind of like poetic justice,” said Amy Wolk, who works for PMPM year-round. Wolk said that visitors seem to love the exhibit. “They’re thrilled that somebody is telling the true story of what happened,” she said.
Wolk, who has lived on the Outer Cape for 33 years, also pointed out people featured in the Generations Project exhibit whom she knew. The project is a New York-based nonprofit that filmed oral histories with Provincetown’s queer community, which are now streamed on a loop in the museum.
Next to the Generations Project sits a case commemorating the Hat Sisters, husbands John Michael Gray and Tim O’Connor, whose fabulous hats were for many years a fixture at Carnival. Gray died in 2016; O’Connor works at the museum during the summer.
Dylan McGee, another year-round staff member who has managed the PMPM grounds since August 2021, said that these newer exhibits “tie the whole museum together.”
Neither McGee nor Wolk have formal job titles. “The goal this year is to have everyone do everything,” McGee said. They have learned to “streamline” certain tasks, Wolk said.
While the staff grew to around 20-plus volunteers last season, there are fewer year-round employees. In addition to Weidner, who leaves town for the off-season, McGee and Wolk mentioned Jeremy Callahan, the museum’s engagement manager, and Ron Spinks, who handles accounting.
Weidner’s salary in 2020 was $182,621, up from $111,154 in 2017, according to IRS filings. Weidner did not respond to questions about PMPM’s staffing.
The museum does not employ a curator or registrar but instead brings in guest curators for specific exhibitions. In 2018, Samuel Tager, currently executive director of the Provincetown Public Art Foundation, received $32,307 for work as “collections curator,” according to IRS filings, but his services had not been contracted again as of the most recent filings from 2020.
“The majority of our collection is actually on display,” Weidner said, except for some books and clothing stored in a collections area downstairs.
Provincetown residents sometimes attempt to drop off their historical and personal artifacts for the collection — but the museum is not currently seeking such donations. People who do bring items to the museum “will be politely greeted, but we will not be taking their material in-house,” Weidner said.
The cancelation of the Provincetown 400 celebrations due to the pandemic was a serious loss, Weidner said.
“We were all geared up for a very large, active, and financially successful 2020, with lots of programming that didn’t happen,” he said.
The nonprofit, which operates solely on revenue and donations without any regular state funding, had taken out a $4.5-million loan from the Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod to finance the elevator, formally known as the Bradford Access Project. The inclined elevator (it is technically not a funicular) opened in April 2022 and transports the museum’s visitors from Bradford Street up to the top of High Pole Hill in a sleek machine designed by Swiss architects.
“That sucked some big funds out of everything,” Wolk said. “But people love it.”
“I think the reception has been overwhelmingly positive,” Weidner said.
Weidner said that the abbreviated seasons in 2020 and 2021 made year-over-year numbers hard to compare — but the elevator made more than 29,000 trips in the 2022 season.
One new challenge that happened only last year was a direct lightning strike on the monument in late August. The first such strike ever recorded, it fried much of the property’s electrical grid through ground shocks. The inclined elevator’s fire alarm was wiped out along with the point-of-sale equipment on Bradford Street.
McGee was working in the parking booth at the time, on the opposite side of the monument facing Motta Field. “I heard a loud bang,” he said.
With a few workarounds, however, the museum and monument were up and running the next day.
The work that takes place off-season is all coming together as opening day approaches. The museum just painted and refurbished the east gallery for its upcoming joint juried exhibition with the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), a tradition that began in 2020 amidst pandemic constraints. Submissions can be dropped off at PMPM on Tuesday, March 7 from noon to 4 p.m., and selected works will be exhibited for sale.
As in the past, membership in PMPM and PAAM will be reciprocal this year. “The collaboration is a win-win for everyone,” Weidner said.
The opening reception for the juried exhibition will take place at 4 p.m. on April 1 following a full schedule of other activities, including an egg hunt coordinated with the Provincetown Recreation Dept.
While tickets to the museum and monument will cost $20 this season, admission on April 1 will be free.