Pirate Legends Debunked at the Field Museum | WBEZ
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Pirate Legends Debunked at the Field Museum

Pirates hold an enduring fascination. They're the subject of literature, trashy romances and movies. Now, an exhibit at the Field Museum seeks to demystify them. It provides historical perspective at a time when pirates are making the news again.

ambi: kids at exhibit

A class of fifth graders from Frances Xavier Warde School in Chicago is lined up, waiting impatiently. They're eager to see the exhibit, Real Pirates. It includes more than 200 artifacts like treasure and cannons, from a sunken pirate ship.

STUDENTS: This is going to be so much fun. I've been waiting for this for a long time.

That excitement spills over into their best guesses at how pirates talked.

STUDENTS: Argh. Ahoy matey. I bet they swore a lot. Yeah, I bet they swore a lot too.
KALSNES: What else do you know about pirates?  
STUDENTS: They have peg legs and parrots.

The exhibit examines myths about pirates, and takes a look at the Golden Age of Piracy that ended nearly three centuries ago.

A few surprises – some pirates did have peg legs and eye patches. Hey, it was a dangerous job. Some had pets on boards, like cats, and dogs, and – yes – parrots. But they didn't make people walk the plank.

SQWERSKI: It was kind of a lot of pomp and ceremony for something where they just would have thrown them overboard.

Tom Sqwerski is a project manager for exhibitions at the Field. He says it's important to look back because history can shed light on what's happening now.

SQWERSKI: The fact is, they still did kill people, they still did raid ships. The difference between the current pirates in Somalia and what these pirates were doing is not very different. Yet for some reason, we have this romantic view of them through literature and popular culture.
The Somalis aren't the only ones attacking ships, and holding crews and ships for ransom. But an agency that monitors piracy says more than a third of the attacks last year were off the coast of Somalia.

Despite these modern-day attacks, pirates still have pop-culture status that shows up in fashion, like puffy shirts, and Meet-up groups.

SQWERSKI: They say the number two Halloween costume for adults is pirates. The Treasure Island pirates, Pirates of the Caribbean, they represent this bad-boy images of pirates. They did their own thing, they answered to no one. I think there's something very appealing about that to people.

That romanticized view is why teacher Katy Lucas is here with her fifth-graders.

LUCAS: They're already starting to make connections with novels and things we've read about slavery and pirates. And you're hearing them make connections with current events. We're trying to get the Hollywood out of that and make it more realistic to them.

Her students, Gordon Young and Matt Spector, look around with interest. They make immediate links with current events.

YOUNG: It's cool to learn about pirates in exhibits, but if you really think about it, pirates are really bad people.
KALSNES: How about today? Are there any pirates still today?
SPECTOR: Yeah, they go on huge cruise ships and take things for ransom.
YOUNG: They're from a country, Somalia that had a civil war.
SPECTOR: Pirates now don't have those pistols anymore. They are loaded with the newest guns, like machine guns and AK-47s, and that kind of stuff.

Another student, Reyna Lee, is intrigued to learn that pirates voted on things.

LEE: They were kind of like us today, with our president. They voted for their captain, like we vote for our president and stuff.

But the most surprising discovery is a chest full of coins.

Nat Sound: Why is it so oddly shaped?

The students learn that pirates didn't bury their treasure after all. Olivia Gaweda says it makes sense that they wore the coins as jewelry. She says she never really got the point, of burying treasure.

The exhibit, Real Pirates, continues at the Field through October.

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