The Martha’s Vineyard Museum, long sited on School Street in Edgartown, formerly and modestly known as a historical society, and soon to be perceived, according to the museum’s new executive director Phil Wallis, as “the Island’s cultural hub,” made a brilliant and daring move several years ago when it purchased the old Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven for its new campus.
Some might have called it crazy. A teardown Edwardian hospital resembling Tara in “Gone With the Wind”? Huge ornate rooms to fill with — what? — ship models and portraits of whaling captains’ wives? And yet, the minute the deed was transferred, a first pivotal move was made by razing a row of ragged trees at the edge of the long lawn. A stirring vista of the harbor transformed the hillside acreage into the New England Naples, Italy, with a view to die for.
Last Saturday night, June 25, the museum’s 18th annual “Evening of Discovery” showed over 400 attendees another possible tagline for the future museum: Magical Kingdom.
Atop the bluffs between the old mansion and the harbor, two tremendous white tents suggested Camelot, with spires lofting white bunting in the gloaming light. A fleet of vans from Stagecoach Taxi, running the route from high school parking lot to the gala, discharged guests clad in high Gatsby apparel — a tip of a Borsalino to the Prohibition era: women in flowing gowns and sequined forehead bands, men with bowties and thin wool blazers.
The southern tent hosted guests in the cocktail hour with vintage delicacies ranging from a raw bar to pigs-in-a-blanket, and 1920s music from the Long Point Five: Jim Athearn, Bud Larson, Jeri Larson, John Schilling, and Julie Schilling. You might ask, bearing in mind the Prohibition theme, if moonshine was served along with a full bar of modern drinks? The answer is no. But let us not leave the subject before tipping that same Borsalino to our bold Island fishermen, back in the ’20s, who supplemented their normally meager gills-based income with moonshine. As the late Craig Kingsbury told the museum’s oral history director, Linsey Lee, “We had a lot of geniuses here cooking up their own bug juice.”
In the still larger tent, guests were waved to tables topped by bouquets of white feathers, high trails of fairy lights limning the rafters, and views of small boats in the Lagoon. (In my humble opinion, it doesn’t matter if they never put a single historic artifact in the big old building, just as long as we can go on partying on the lawn.)
Board directors Skip Finley and Chris Morse told the assembly that this important evening marks an important year: The total for the campaign to build the new campus has climbed to $13 million. With another $3 million, the board hopes to begin construction at the end of the year. And in the meantime, more funds were collected on the spot, as Mr. Finley and Mr. Morse solicited donations for four renovated bathrooms at $25K apiece; four restored fireplaces at $10K; 10 outdoor benches at $5K, 50 restored windows at $2K, 35 library shelves at $1K, and 50 classroom chairs at $500. Lots of hands were raised, orders were taken, and a feeling of largesse filled the tent space.
Phil Wallis, the museum’s director since February, addressed the ranks. He was formerly executive director of the Audubon Society, then of the Nature Conservancy. He also enjoyed a childhood packed with summers in his family’s “big old place, Windward, on West Chop.” Childhood summers on the Island make it a certainty that one will eventually live here, maybe even — gulp! — year-round. This is something about which we should start warning people.
Mr. Wallis demonstrates zeal, idealism, and also an endearing kidding side, such as when he confided, “I’ve enjoyed coming into the office every day. Well, almost every day.” He summed up on a serious note by saying, “The museum can change lives. That’s what history can do for all of us.”
At my own table, I was delighted to sit with Ally Reed, Martha’s Vineyard Museum and Gay Head Lighthouse guide; Auidn Bett of Vineyard Haven; Stephanie Elliott, also of Vineyard Haven; my dear Facebook buddy, Jean McCarthy, whose main wheelhouse of eleemosynary interest is Featherstone Center for the Arts; Nancy Kingsley, about to host an exhibit of Stan Murphy’s paintings, and her daughter Eve Kingsley, visiting from Boston but also, considering her childhood summers, destined to live here eventually, don’t you think?
A silent auction of 46 fanciful offerings was also arranged with clipboards on a table in the first tent, with such pleasures and curiosities as a sail to Tarpaulin Cove on Charlotte with Nat Benjamin, golf with Bill Murray, booze in a bathtub, and Fourth of July 2017 fireworks at the Edgartown Lighthouse.
A lovely meal was served. A dessert of strawberry trifle with cream sherry custard, berries, and a champagne toast finished up the evening.
It was a night for museum buffs of Martha’s Vineyard to make it home by the preferred bedtime of 9 pm. Wait! Let us pause a moment as we contemplate this perfect package: $25,000 bathrooms to sponsor, luxury cruises and bathtub hooch to bid on, and an early-to-bed escape? Jay Gatsby would have been super-demoralized.