Your Town, Our Island at Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Your Town, Our Island at Martha’s Vineyard Museum

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Saturday morning, and strangers are starting conversations with each other, wondering aloud about what it was like when Thomas Coffin’s and H.W. Smith’s 1836 fire buckets were used, talking about the mournful old photo of Nancy Luce holding her two mournful-looking chickens, or — like Marilyn Wortman, who recounts how her husband Denys went swimming in front of the A&P in Vineyard Haven after the hurricane in 1954 — just sharing Island stories.

It feels a bit like a party in which we are all the guests of honor. Whether a multi-generational Islander or a recent resident, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s (MVM) exhibit, Your Town, Our Island, offers much that resonates. The two-room collection of artifacts, photos, and Linsey Lee’s videos from “Island Voices” comprise an entertaining and provocative exhibit celebrating all the Island towns.

“It enhances and adds depth to the objects,” Ms. Lee says, “to be able to hear these voices. They speak for a certain aspect of the town.”

History is recalled and animated by the wooden Martha’s Vineyard sign on loan from seasonal resident Tom Corcoran who salvaged it from the old airport, an 1865 Agricultural Fair booklet that Ms. Lee found at a tag sale at Arnie Fisher’s house, and the door of an 1800s fishing shed from Chappaquiddick donated by the Silva family of Edgartown on which weather reports are written: “Harbor frozen over to Cape Pogue, 1885.”

David Nathans, the museum’s executive director, explains, “The concept came out of program meetings with board members and our curators, Anna Carringer and Linsey Lee, in an attempt to come up with themes drawn from our collection that would be current and resonate with residents all over the Island.” He continues, “If we don’t come together as Islanders, the Island culture could be lost.”

Denys Wortman, who in a blink, spots a typo on one of the information plaques in the entrance to the exhibit (it was quickly amended), nevertheless enthuses, “The pictures are fantastic. I don’t know what I expected, but it all just comes to life.”

And Bob Tilton, who claims he has his own collection of Island memorabilia — “I have a lot of these pictures” — says, “I’m impressed with this. They did a good job.”

“We have a large collection,” chief curator Bonnie Stacy says. “As is the case with most museums, most of what they have has to be stored. I was not here when this exhibit was conceived last year [she came to the museum in May, 2010], but the idea was to make it clear to the people of Martha’s Vineyard that this is their museum, and we tell stories from all over the Island, and we want people to come here and appreciate their history. It also works for visitors who want to know what went on here. We can’t tell the whole story in the space that we have, but we invite people to offer their own take of what’s important.”

The exhibit includes yellow note papers on which visitors can post their ideas of what should be included, and their suggestions are thoughtful: “More about the railroad,” writes someone; and two others scribble their suggestions, “Dorothy West,” “The arrival of the Portuguese.”

The video in the corner is playing Ms. Lee’s interview with the late Dean K. Denniston (1913-2006) who told stories of life in Oak Bluffs and the racial prejudice that existed on the Island.

On the facing wall Eric Cottle (1917-2010), a Menemsha fisherman whose grandparents were deaf, talks about being part of the deaf community in Chilmark. (At one time in Chilmark, one in 25 was deaf.) Everyone learned to sign.

In the background on the video we hear Ms. Lee ask him to sign the alphabet, to count and demonstrate words he remembers. Then we watch as Mr. Cottle, in his red plaid shirt and wide blue suspenders, charms us showing how he and Josie West, who played in a regular poker game, used to sign their cards to each other.

It is not a large exhibition, and it some ways that makes each display become more relevant: the Priscilla Pearl necklaces devised by Edgartownian Ralph Bodman, who found a way to coat glass beads with herring scales so that they resembled pearls; a book of poems written by Nancy Luce, along with one of her chicken’s headstones carved, “Poor Tweedle Dedel, Bebbee Pinky. Died June 19, 1871.”

The exhibit and town forums the museum will be hosting are components of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a permanent exhibit on the history of the Vineyard. (The grant was applied for during the MVM capital campaign for a new building in West Tisbury.) The first forum will be in Aquinnah on November 9, from 7 to 8:30 pm at the Town Hall.

Your Town, Our Island, 10 am–4 pm, Mon.–Sat., M.V. Museum, Edgartown. $6; $5 seniors; $4 children between 6-15. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown residents are free Saturday, Oct. 9; Chilmark and Aquinnah residents are free on Saturday, Oct. 16. 508-627-4441; mvmuseum.org.