Souvenirs from long ago in new exhibit at Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Peter Rodegast and Bonnie Stacy, M.V. Museum curator. — Photo by Susan Safford

In a bit of a departure for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, rather than displaying artifacts that typify Vineyard life and culture, the museum has gathered a collection that represents the art, trades, and people of distant lands.

The show, A Taste for the Exotic, showcases a sampling of items that were brought back from distant lands by Vineyard seafarers. The exhibit demonstrates not only the far-flung reaches of the globe traveled by 19th and 20th century whalers, but also Vineyarders’ fascination with other cultures.

Over the years, locals have donated many items that that were prized possessions in the homes of their ancestors. “The collection comes from all over,” says chief curator Bonnie Stacy. “We thought a good way to tie them all together was to show the way Vineyarders went all over the world collecting things. They brought their influence to remote places, then brought things back with them.

“I think it’s important to look at it not just as decorations. People were collecting and displaying these things to show how educated and well-travelled they were.”

The small exhibit is divided into three sections featuring treasures from the East Asia (primarily China), the Pacific Islands (including Hawaii), and the Far North (Alaska, Newfoundland, the Aleutian Islands, and the Arctic).

The exhibit includes examples of both the decorative — spectacular examples of precision ivory carving from China and scrimshaw and walrus ivory figurines from the far North, and the practical — snow goggles from Alaska fashioned from a strip of wood with tiny eye slits. According to the exhibit guide, whalers and other visitors to the Arctic regions would have adopted items like this to adapt to an alien climate and fortunately, some of them brought gear home with them to remain as family heirlooms. A rugged looking bear coat is among the focal points in the collection.

In some cases, the Arctic imports saw practical use during cold Vineyard winters. In one of the fascinating oral histories available by audio device to visitors, Mildred Huntington (1912-2003) talks about a pair of Eskimo boots made from animal hide, which were brought back from a voyage by her father. “I never had anything warmer on my feet,” she said.

And though they were eventually passed down to all of her younger siblings, “They never wore out,” she said. “They never came apart. The smell was awful. They had to stay in the back entry.”

Perhaps the most spectacular items in the collection are examples of the decorative arts from China — beautiful pieces whose amazing detail and craftsmanship tell stories of their own.

Prominently displayed is an impossibly intricate carved ivory model of a junk fitted out as a flower boat complete with tiny carved figures, plants, and even a minuscule tea set. Another example of meticulous work from China can be found in an ornate lacquer sewing box with claw feet and tiny sewing implements carved from ivory.

A beautiful kimono-style silk dressing gown is displayed to show off the full-length embroidered decoration on the back depicting flowers and a crane in flight. Just as amazing as the workmanship is the fact that the piece has survived since the 19th century, and in pristine condition.

“We store things in the highest quality materials we can afford,” says Ms. Stacy. “Textiles are stored in acid-free tissue and boxes. The fur coat was stored in acid-free materials.” The coat was also treated to time in a standing freezer, a new acquisition by the museum, to eliminate the possibility of insect infestation. (It proved to be pest-free).

The dressing gown was passed down in the family of a whaling captain who travelled widely and most likely brought the item back from Japan. However, the exhibit guide notes that the garment may also have been purchased from a Martha’s Vineyard purveyor of Oriental Goods, the Circuit Avenue business.

Treasures from the Pacific Islands include jewelry and some impressive carved items like an adze on top of a tall ornamental tower and a wooden paddle featuring an extensive repeating design.

The Pacific Island finds tell interesting stories of extended stays in tropical lands. According to text found in the exhibit, “The Hawaiian island became a favorite port of call for both traders and whalers on their way to China and the Arctic. Captain’s families who traveled with them often stayed behind in Honolulu while the men continued north to hunt whales in the Arctic.”

In one of the most interesting oral histories, Alice Cleveland (1893-1989) talks about her aunt Lucy Smith who spent four years at sea with her captain husband and infant child. Ms. Cleveland relates that, although her aunt, “could navigate as well as her husband,” women were not allowed to travel up north. According to Ms. Cleveland, Lucy brought along her organ and conducted Sunday service for the sailors and even played for a Hawaiian king who let her to wear his feather cape.

The items that make up the exhibit are fascinating in and of themselves. A visit to this exhibit provides a sampling of what might be found in the vast collection of a large metropolitan natural history museum. However, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the tale it tells of the adventurous, fearless, and rugged individuals — both men and women — from our whaling past.