Sea Change gives voice to 1960s Martha’s Vineyard

Sea Change: Martha's Vineyard in the 1960s is currently on exhibit at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.
Lynn Christoffers

Sea Change: Martha's Vineyard in the 1960s is currently on exhibit at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s new exhibit shows the subtleties and extremes of Martha’s Vineyard 1960’s metamorphosis.

“Sea Change,” the newest exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, is not just a haven for history buffs. Music lovers, art fans, fashionistas, and activists young and old will appreciate the broad collection of artifacts, photos, and oral histories that paint a picture of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1960s. The exhibit only takes up a small room at the museum’s Edgartown location, but there’s a lot packed into that space.

The walls are decked with photos, artwork, posters, and home movie clips. A timeline encircles the room, guiding museum-goers through the major events in Vineyard history, and national history, from 1960 to 1969. At center are whimsical skirts and paisley shirts. And if you plug in a set of earphones, voices from the past stream in to tell the story of it all.

“When we were setting out trying to tackle an entire decade in this tiny little room, we knew we were going to have to use a lot of stories,” said the museum’s assistant curator, Anna Carringer, who formulated the exhibit with chief curator Bonnie Stacy and oral history curator Linsey Lee. “You can’t tell one linear story, because it is experienced differently by every single person. What we decided to do was explore the stories through the eyes of the people who were here.”

The staff turned to Ms. Lee’s extensive oral history collection for many of those stories. They also held a photo collection day where they scanned community members’ 1960s photos. Word of mouth got out, and eventually the collection grew to include several promotional posters from the legendary Mooncusser Cafe, and a variety of clothing ranging from Merrily Fenner’s old prom dress to a funky velveteen jacket Janet Messineo once donned.

“It’s hard to encapsulate one 10-year period,” said Ms. Lee. “This is not a comprehensive exhibit. It’s weaving together all of these elements. But the same things come up every time.”

Those topics include hearing and playing folk music at the Mooncusser; the beginnings of an environmentalist movement that spurred the founding of the Vineyard Conservation Society, and the preservation of Vineyard gems such as Cedar Tree Neck and Menemsha Hills. The exhibit also covers civil rights, the joyous fellowship surrounding the founding of the NAACP, and the controversial founding of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. At the same time, national events trickled down to affect the Vineyard, including the inauguration and assassination of President Kennedy and the war in Vietnam.

Ms. Carringer and Ms. Lee say the “endcaps” of the exhibit are the 72-day ferry strike in 1960, and the infamous Dike Bridge incident involving Senator Edward Kennedy in 1969. In the midst of the Steamship Authority strike, Islanders lent one another a helping hand by offering their own ferry services. “It was this really wonderful community spirit,” Ms. Carringer said. Adversely, Mary Jo Kopechne’s drowning at the Dike Bridge made Chappaquiddick a household name. Ms. Carringer said, “Whatever shred of that last vestige of old, quiet community feel,” sank with Senator Kennedy’s Oldsmobile Delmont 88 that July. “We couldn’t go back from that. The Island was changed in a way it couldn’t be unchanged.”’

Change, the curators say, is the prevailing theme of this exhibit. The 60s were a decade of change throughout the nation, but especially on the Vineyard, with its constant exchange of people, and the Island’s unique ability to remain isolated from the rest of the world, while still mindful of it. Multiple opinions were juxtaposed on just 100 square miles of land. “Like we always have and like we continue to do, people found a way to work together, to live together,” Ms. Carringer said. “It’s not always easy, but these people, like any other group of people — religious, cultural, ethnic — find their place, then change the Vineyard in a very subtle way.” Ms. Lee said that subtle change brought the Vineyard from “a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ type feeling, to a feeling of ‘anything is possible.’”

The stories and emotions surrounding those changes are complex and conflicted, but they are outlined thoroughly in the Sea Change exhibit’s displays and oral histories. “This exhibit is so dense, there’s so many layers,” Ms. Carringer said of the exhibit that will be up through April of 2015. “We hope people will come back and learn a little more each time.”

“Sea Change: Martha’s Vineyard in the 1960s” opened to the public last Friday. Admission is free for museum members, and $7 for non-members. For more information, visit mvmuseum.org.