Martha’s Vineyard Museum debuts new exhibit, Enchanted Isle

The DeBlase family visits the new exhibit at the M.V. Museum. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Presenting an overview of the entire recorded history of Martha’s Vineyard is an ambitious undertaking for a museum, especially when all 300-plus years have to be squeezed into a 400-square-foot space, but the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has managed to put together a remarkably engaging multi-media exhibit featuring colorful artifacts, photos, paintings, recorded oral histories, and even an eye-opening home movie from the 1930s. This visual document of our history, which opened this past Saturday, September 15, is a permanent addition to the museum’s collection.

The exhibit, named Enchanted Isle: The Story of Martha’s Vineyard, is presented roughly in chronological order with themed sections. It starts out with an area called The History and The Geology. A slide show illustrating the Gay Head cliffs features photos from the 19th century to the present day, showing the drastic geologic changes in our Island’s most notable natural landmark. Also included in this section are a couple of oral histories including former tribe education director Helen Manning relating the legend of Moshup and tribal member Gladys Widdis describing her childhood in Aquinnah.

“The Wampanoags have the longest cultural history on the Island,” curator Bonnie Stacy said. “We have tried to tell the Wampanoag stories with Wampanoag voices.”

The exhibit includes a number of oral histories recorded by Linsey Lee, which can be accessed by new wand-style recorded tour devices or by cell phone.

The next section, Arrival of the English, illustrates day-to-day life on the Island during the 18th and 19th centuries. This section includes a few items from the former Cottle Store that operated in Vineyard Haven in the early 1800s, along with a blow-up of a page from the store’s account book giving an indication of what goods were imported to the Island at that time.

The museum has preserved a number of telling documents passed down from our earliest European settlers, including a land sale deed from 1709 and a document recording the sale of slave child in 1727. Ms. Stacy explains that paper artifacts such as these, and a 1783 book that includes an early map of the Vineyard, cannot withstand prolonged exposure to light and therefore aren’t on public view often.

Another infrequently displayed item is the centerpiece of the next section, called The Sea Supports Us. A remarkably detailed 30-inch model of a whaling ship made in the 1800s from wood, twine, ivory, and whalebone has survived the test of time with every tiny whaleboat intact. This section also features some exquisite examples of scrimshaw and an intricately decorated inlaid box that was a gift from a sea captain to his daughter.

Ms. Stacy commented on the nature of life on an Island, saying, “One of the things we’ve realized in planning this exhibit is that although we’re an Island and a small community, because of the seafaring culture, we’ve never really been isolated. The water doesn’t isolate us, it connects us. It’s brought us all over the world and brought people from all over the world here.”

The next section illustrates that last point. Piety and Pleasure focuses on the early roots of the Vineyard tourism trade. The heyday of Oak Bluffs as a resort destination is illustrated by some wonderful gingerbread details from early campground cottages, a women’s wool bathing costume, along with a blown-up photograph of people wearing similarly elaborate beach garb.

This section also includes a short oral history of the Shearer Cottage, a refuge for early African American visitors to the Vineyard.

Perhaps the most remarkable item in the whole exhibit is a 10-minute home movie from a 1934 trip to the Vineyard featuring the ferry ride, the Gay Head cliffs, a trip to Menemsha, an oxen team, and even a glimpse of members of the Chilmark deaf community.

A few interesting relics from our more recent history include a wonderful linoleum cut print depicting the 1960 ferry strike. The exhibit concludes with a section called A Living History, which features an oral history snippet of Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, discussing the ecological challenges facing the Vineyard today.

The exhibit was made possible by a planning grant awarded to the museum in 2008. In the intervening years, the museum staff has consulted with scholars from both on and off Island and hosted events to gather community input. Ms. Stacy noted that the exhibit will not be static. “As people respond to the exhibit we’ll change it. When we move [to the museum’s future home in Vineyard Haven] we’ll have a larger exhibit partly based on this smaller one.”

Exhibit: Enchanted Isle, open Monday–Saturday, 10 am–5 pm, M.V. Museum, Edgartown. 508-627-4441;