“Yo, we’re here inside the Marine Hospital,” a young man said into his iPhone camera before swinging it around to take a panorama of a dilapidated bathroom. “And it is creeeeepy.” He pressed a button, and his video shipped off to his friends via Snapchat.
In case you’re over age 30, and/or have resided under a rock lately, Snapchat is a social media platform which allows users to send friends photos and videos with a time limit. Recipients see the image for up to 10 seconds before it “expires,” never to be seen again. The brand logo is a ghost, representing the app’s “here, then gone” nature.
Seventh graders like Snapchat a lot. Almost all of the students roaming the Marine Hospital with the Tisbury School on Wednesday had the app open. As far as I could tell, it was their way of saying that touring the spooky building was a really cool experience, and they wanted to share it with their friends. That, and their delighted shrieks as they popped out of dark closets and shower stalls to scare one another.
The students were excitable, but they hadn’t deviated entirely from their assignment, which, according to Ann Ducharme of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, was “to document disappearing history.” The Marine Hospital, which originally opened in 1895, was purchased in 2011 to become the new home of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. After several years of fundraising and preparations, renovations on the building will begin this week. This class of seventh graders was the last group to explore the existing building, which has been vacant since the St. Pierre sailing camp vacated the premises in 2007. “On Monday, this is not going to be available to the public,” Ms. Ducharme says. “You guys are the last artists.”
The assignment was the brainchild of Reuben Fitzgerald, the seventh and eighth grade Social Studies teacher at the Tisbury School. He saw the Marine Hospital as a lens through which students could experience history firsthand, so he teamed up with Tisbury School art teacher Julie Brand and Ms. Ducharme, who is the education director for the museum. “It’s not exactly part of the curriculum, but it was a great opportunity to work with the museum and tie in some local history,” Mr. Fitzgerald told The Times. “The Marine Hospital is an important part of local history, and it’s an important part of the future. It was such a privilege to be able to be the last ones in the building as it is now.”
Ms. Ducharme visited the Tisbury School last week to give students a history of the Marine Hospital before they visited. That history continued as museum staff led the class around the building on Wednesday. “The first part was built in 1895 when they believed sunlight and fresh air cured everything,” museum staffer Allison Walker said. “The second and creepy part of the building was built in 1935, when they believed that surgery and chloroform would cure everything.”
The students’ objective is to create an assemblage collage, “to capture the essence of the Marine Hospital, this disappearing bit of history, any way they could,” Ms. Ducharme said. That includes ghost-like photo emulsion transfers, writing, collecting paint chips and rubble, and drawing impressionistic sketches. They hope to have the completed collage pulled together by Thanksgiving, at which point the museum will display it as an exhibit.
It was a rainy evening when the students arrived at the Marine Hospital, and the shadows had already grown long inside the building, bolstering the mysterious, haunting atmosphere.
“We knew the kids would love it, we hoped they would get a little scared, and we were totally playing to that,” Ms. Ducharme said. “In this old historic building, it’s easy to use imagination, and their imaginations were firing on all cylinders.”
The project leaders actually encouraged all the startling and screaming, to keep those cylinders running. “I could not have designed a better visceral experience of seventh graders running through the halls with flashlights and screaming and startling each other and letting their imaginations go wild about what was around the next corner,” Ms. Ducharme said. “I hope this all translates into their art.”
She’s right. In their hurried footsteps, you could almost hear a hospital cot being rushed to the surgery room. In their laughter, the echoes of campers on their way to the water. Even when the students sat sketching seriously in some corner, it evoked the keen academic appreciation with which the museum will care for the property in the future. In spite of, or maybe because of all the excitement, the students got it. Because who could be better than a group of Snapchatting seventh graders to understand that history is fleeting, and can disappear almost as quickly as we notice it? Like a ghost.