What’s old is new at Cape museums

A restoration of Ralph and Martha Cahoon's studio at the Cahoon Museum of American Art.
Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe
A restoration of Ralph and Martha Cahoon's studio at the Cahoon Museum of American Art.

Mermaids and monarchs and pirates — oh, my! The dust has settled on some significant renovations and new construction at several Cape Cod museums. The Cahoon Museum of American Art — home of Ralph Cahoon’s whimsical mermaid paintings — has reopened in its historical home in Cotuit following a $2.5 million expansion and renovation. Underwater explorer Barry Clifford, whose discovery of the sunken pirate ship Whydah off the coast of Wellfleet yielded what is said to be the world’s only authenticated pirate treasure, has opened the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth. And the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History’s new butterfly house will reopen in June, adding to the Brewster site’s diverse exhibits on Cape Cod habitats.

The Cahoon Museum highlights folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon, who bought the 1782 building in 1945 and made it their home and studio. Martha learned furniture painting from her Swedish immigrant father and went on to paint country scenes and natural motifs, such as flowers and birds. Ralph, from a Cape Cod family of fishermen, is best known for his tongue-in-cheek paintings of mermaids in everyday situations — at a tea party, whipping up a meal, dealing with a fender bender on Route 28. The museum’s permanent collection focuses on American art from the early 19th century to the present, including several lovely landscapes by John Joseph Enneking.

While the renovation included significant behind-the-scenes structural work — such as adding a foundation and climate-controlled storage — it also doubled the exhibition space. A soaring addition with clerestory windows, which flood the space with natural light, is now used for special exhibits, allowing the museum to keep more of its permanent collection on display, said Sarah Johnson, director. Botanica, an exhibition of art inspired by botany, horticulture, and nature featuring artists from the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Women Artists, will be on view here from Oct. 5 to Nov. 20. There’s also a new multipurpose room and kitchen on the lower level, a courtyard created largely from elements reused from the site, and expanded parking.


A restoration of the Cahoons’ studio is a work in progress. “We have a treasure trove of archival materials — their stencils, their ledgers, their letters, their photographs,” Johnson said. “We can show a little bit of their artistic process.”

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There’s a treasure trove of a much different sort at the new Whydah Pirate Museum, which opened in June at the site of the former ZooQuarium. Exhibits track the voyage of the Whydah, from the ship’s departure from London in 1716 to its capture by the infamous pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy to its wreck in a violent nor’easter off Cape Cod on April 26, 1717. Visitors can step aboard a replica of the ship, examine the sleeping quarters, and see life-size models of inhabitants, such as the ship’s doctor, who’s in the process of amputating an injured crew member’s leg. The sounds of creaking boards, hammers, and saws add to the effect.

The treasures include rare coins, such as “the Royal Strike” minted in 1653; cufflinks, buckles, and buttons; silver and gold ingots; and jewelry fashioned of Akan gold from West African mines. Most items have been traveling the United States and Europe for the last eight years as part of a National Geographic exhibit called “Real Pirates — The Untold Story of the Whydah, from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship.” There are also more mundane items, such as pewter plates, weapons, and pirate flags.

One of the most interesting parts of the museum may be the lab, where visitors learn how explorers go about excavating underwater sites and how scientists extract and preserve the artifacts. X-rays of “concretions,” rusted, rock-like globs of minerals, reveal the valuable items hidden inside, and visitors can watch museum staff carefully extracting them with an assortment of tools.

The weather has turned too cool for butterflies, but monarchs and painted ladies will take up residence once again next summer at the new Butterfly House at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. The butterfly house and adjacent “pollinator path” are part of a national movement to create pollinator gardens across the United States to attract butterflies and pollinators, such as bees, said Bob Dwyer, the museum’s president and executive director. “Pollinators basically keep our food source going. If we lose the pollinators, we’re going to be awfully hungry.”


Other highlights of the museum include an aquarium filled with Cape Cod creatures such as lobsters, painted turtles, spider crabs, and moon jellies; an exhibit on early Wampanoag life; a display of bird carvings by Eldridge Arnold in a room that replicates his Hyannis Port workshop; a live “osprey cam”; and trails through the property’s 400-plus acres. In honor of Massachusetts Archeology Month, October activities include pottery reconstruction workshops and “Prehistoric Autopsy” a film series about three of our prehistoric ancestors.

For more information about Cape Cod museums, visit

Ellen Albanese can be reached at