Perched on an acre overlooking the Lagoon Pond and outer Vineyard Haven harbor, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has a new home in the formerly shuttered 1895 Marine Hospital, which the nonprofit organization purchased in 2011 and renovated into the gorgeous space it is now. It opened to the public this March.
The expansive new property includes 15 exhibition areas, a classroom, program room, research library, gift shop, and small cafe. From its humble beginnings almost a century ago, the organization has come a long way. Starting in 1922, when the museum was known as the Dukes County Historical Society, it led something of a nomadic life. The society used libraries, churches, and even private houses for its meetings. Eventually, it bought the 1740 Thomas Cooke House in Edgartown, where it remained for decades.
In 1996, the society changed its name to the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society and then it changed its name once again, in 2006, to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The new name was intended to better convey its mission and its collection of island-centric objects, archival documents, historic books, photographs, paintings, and exhibits. Its new permanent home has the space for items that it didn’t previously have room to display, as well as room for temporary exhibits. Overall, the museum has more than 15,000 objects, from maritime items to archeological materials.
Permanent exhibits include “One Island, Many Stories,” which explores the history of the Island through the themes of fishing, farming, changing, making, voyaging, escaping, and belonging. Items in the exhibit include scrimshaw, logbooks, fishing gear, and more. “Challenges of the Sea” gives an overview of island shipwrecks, navigation, lifesaving, and weather over the years. In “Flashes of Brilliance,” the history of island lighthouses is told, with pride of place going to the 1854 Fresnel lens from Gay Head Light, hanging brilliantly in a two-story glass pavilion.
I’m not sure what it says about me that one of my favorite exhibits is its children’s area called “Hand’s-On History.” It makes me wish it was around when my now college-age student was a toddler and we scrambled to find rainy-day activities on summer afternoons when the beach wasn’t an option. Since I visited on opening weekend, and there weren’t any kids around just then, I felt free to check out the sea captain’s cabin, play with the animal puppets, and pop into the fishing shack, though I restrained myself from getting into the climb-in boat (complete with fishing poles). I do have some sense of decorum. To be fair, though, I wasn’t the only adult admiring the space. It’s really well done and I’m sure children will find it as appealing as I did.
Some of the temporary exhibits on display through mid-June 2019 include “Our Own Beat: 200 Years of Island Music,” with listening stations, photographs, and instruments; “Lost and Found,” showcasing work by five photographers who shot sometimes haunting images of the Marine Hospital during the years after the museum purchased it and before construction began; and “Hidden Treasures: Selections From the Permanent Collection,” which displays items, such as charts from an atlas published between 1777 and 1781 detailing the waters around Martha’s Vineyard during the 18th century that have been stored out of sight for years.
In time, a separate building at the museum will display larger objects, such as whaling and fishing vessels, the original hearse from the town of Edgartown, a peddler’s cart used for deliveries at Alley’s General Store, and more. For both islanders and visitors, the museum is an excellent place to get a comprehensive overview of Martha’s Vineyard’s history, and its new space makes a fitting home for its extensive holdings.
Martha’s Vineyard Museum, 151 Lagoon Pond Way, Vineyard Haven, 508-627-4441, www.mvmuseum.org.