|Jeremy Bangs in his Leiden museum|
..Even that first Thanksgiving has Dutch roots, Bangs says. It drew not only on biblical harvest festivals but also on the thanksgivings the Pilgrims attended every October 3 in Leiden, commemorating the end of the Spanish siege of 1574, in which half the town’s population died. “An obvious parallel,” he wrote in one essay, to the Pilgrims’ brutal first winter in Plymouth after their voyage across the Atlantic.
Bangs made the reverse journey. Born in Oregon and raised mostly in and around Chicago, he has spent the majority of his adult life in Leiden, amassing vast and formidable expertise that includes but isn’t limited to the Pilgrims. He’s written and edited half a dozen books on the Pilgrims, one of which, Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (General Society of Mayflower Descendents, 2009), chronicles their Leiden experience.
But he’s also written about Reformation-era theology, architecture, and art history. His dissertation, written at Leiden University, is on 16th-century Dutch tapestry weaving and church furnishings. In high school, Bangs was a good enough bassoonist to be accepted to Juilliard without applying (he didn’t go), and he first arrived in Leiden as a 22-year-old working artist, three courses shy of a college degree from the University. “What makes Jeremy so special,” says Anderson,“is that he has such a broad—I mean, he’s an art historian, he’s an architectural historian, he knows the theology, and he knows the languages and the history behind all of it.” A onetime biochemist who took a break from the lab in 1976 and never went back, Anderson got interested in genealogy after a great aunt died, leaving behind a family Bible with some unknown names and birthplaces. Now he directs the Great Migration Study Project, an effort to catalogue every single emigrant who settled in New England between 1620 and 1640. It’s close work and, after 25 years, only half finished. “We’ve batted stuff back and forth over decades now,” he says.
Now 67, Bangs seems to remember everything he’s ever read. He walks with a slight limp and carries a cane, a result of the multiple sclerosis he was diagnosed with almost 20 years ago. But it doesn’t keep him from hopping up onto a chair or a bench to show off a high-hung painting or to grab an artifact he thinks a visitor might like to see. When his jokes aren’t corny—“some of the oldest things in the collection are my jokes,” he says—they are wry and acerbic, and punctuated with an almost inaudible chuckle. The longer you talk to him, though, the more his reserve unwinds into a kind of guarded warmth. And at all times, he radiates the coiled patience of someone who knows the answer to most any question you might ask and is just waiting for you to ask it. “He knows everything,” says Sandra Perot, a PhD student from Massachusetts who interned with Bangs at the museum this past summer. “With Jeremy, part of it is wanting to know what you want to know about the story."