EXETER — Rhode Island’s first and only indigenous museum is preparing to soar grandly into the 21st century.
The Tomaquag Museum, which began inside the small Ashaway home of anthropologist Eva Butler more than 60 years ago, will move to an expansive, 18-acre site off Ministerial Road in South Kingstown, on the very land where ancestors of the Niantic and Narragansett tribal nations lived and worked for millennia prior to the arrival of European settlers.
"We are so excited and so thankful," Executive Director Lorén Spears said last week as she discussed plans for the new museum and research center, which is scheduled to open in 2023. The plans include four new buildings and plenty of room for exhibits, area hikes, property tours, visitor parking, gardens full of native plants, medicinals, berries and herbs, new classrooms, performance space, a fully functional kitchen, gift shop, restaurant, pavilions, sculpture gardens, a replica of an early Native village, and a long house.
And that's just in the beginning.
For Spears, a Narragansett tribal member who has worked tirelessly to educate the public on Native history, culture, the environment and the arts for more than a quarter of a century, the project is a dream come true.
"It's an exciting time," said Spears, who has taught at Brown University, the University of Rhode Island and in the Newport Public Schools and continues to teach classes and workshops designed to promote thoughtful dialogue about indigenous history.
Spears said the museum staff and members of the board of directors have been searching for the right location for years now, and this piece of land, steeped in history and owned by the University of Rhode Island, is more than ideal.
"It meets all our requirements," said Spears, who has been working closely with university officials for the last five years. "it ticked off all the boxes."
Spears said the new site is visible yet rural, centrally located and accessible by car, foot and bicycle, but "the cherry on the top" was the existence of viable public transportation.
"It's accessible by public transportation," said Spears. "RIPTA busses run by all day and all night. It's accessible from the north, south, east and west."
The property, which lies just south of Route 138 and north of Route 1, is a few miles away from the Kingston train station and adjacent to the South Kingstown bike path.
The land also borders another piece of land that is not only on the National Register of Historic Places but is significant to the Narragansett tribal nation, said Ryan Carillo, director of URI's Planning and Real Estate Development.
"Tourists will be able to find us," Spears said with a small laugh, noting that the museum's current location is not as accessible.
Located off the beaten path in the woods of Exeter near Arcadia Park, it's a challenge enough to find the current Tomaquag Museum in a car, but near impossible via public transportation.
The new museum, set to break ground in 2022 and open to the public in 2023, will roll out in two phases, with a $4-million capital campaign planned to kick off this fall.
"We are thrilled to be working with so many people," said Spears, "and to have so many collaborators ... our collaborators are fabulous."
Organizations collaborating with the museum on the project include the Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, Roger Williams University School of Law's Pro Bono & Community Partnership, Frank Karpowicz Architects, Rhode Island Foundation, Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, and of course, the University of Rhode Island.
"It's a great opportunity for both of us," said Carillo, noting the long association between the two organizations.
"It's a game changer," said Elizabeth Francis, executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. The new facility, she said, will allow the museum to more fully share its programming, collections and archives, will help usher in a new era and help introduce a new generation to all the museum's "wonderful material."
"The museum has always been impressive and plays such an important role in Rhode Island's cultural history," she said, but the new location will allow museum staff to grow even more in their role as "the true advocates and knowledge bearers for both the past and the present."
The project, "is a testament to how current and present Rhode Island's indigenous community is," Francis added. "They are not locked away in a distant past ... they are not static but are here and essential."
Francis recalled that in 2016, the museum was awarded a National Medal for Museum and Library Services, the nation’s highest honor for institutions that make significant and exceptional contributions to their communities.
Spears traveled to Washington, D.C. for the presentation and received the award from First Lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony held at the White House.
"There has been such amazing growth under Lorén's leadership making it clear that an expansion was needed," said Katie Kirakosian, a co-chair of museum's board of directors. "The current space has served as a fitting home for the museum for many decades."
"The Tomaquag staff and board are thrilled to be a part of and help guide the museum's next chapter," Kirakosian said Friday in an email exchange.
Spears, who has written extensively about the Indigenous experience, and co-edited a new edition of "A Key into the Language of America," by Roger Williams, holds an honorary degree from URI.
Constantly praising the museum's staff, board members and collaborators, Spears also pays tribute to her ancestors, especially the women who founded the museum.
In 1958, she said, Mary E. Glasko, better known as Princess Red Wing, Narragansett/Pokanoket-Wampanoag, founded Tomaquag Museum, Rhode Island’s first and only Indigenous Museum, with the help of a friend and colleague, anthropologist Eva Butler. When Butler died in 1969, Tomaquag moved to the now-legendary Dovecrest Restaurant, owned by Ferris and Eleanor Spears Dove, the matriarch of the Narragansett Tribe who died in 2019 at the age of 100. After Dovecrest closed, Tomaquag moved to its current quarters in Exeter.
But now, Spears said, it's time to focus on the future.
"This is just such an exciting time, Spears repeated. "Dreams are coming true."
Editor's note: this is an updated version of a story first published on March 30, 2021.