Making history happen: M.V. Museum celebrates with energy

— Photo courtesy of MV Museum

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has morphed from a venerable, dusty institution into a center of Island cultural energy over the past several years.

The process has been fascinating and very cool to watch, cool enough last Friday afternoon to draw more than 100 people to hang outdoors through an enthusiastic series of summer showers to celebrate the opening of the Museum’s summer season.

The group chummed up nicely under the tent during brief downpours then expanded outside on the lawn under dry skies to munch, sip, talk, and listen. And to watch Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse players enact a scene from “The Whaleship Essex,” a play by Joe Forbrich based on a true story that also inspired Melville’s classic novel, “Moby-Dick.” The play opens June 19 at the Playhouse.

Museums and plays? “This is not your mother’s museum,” Dan Waters, the museum’s development director, noted whimsically just before a Playhouse crew of 19th century whalers created a foredeck between the munchy and drink tables to enact the dynamics of a fateful voyage about to set sail in 1820.

The museum has had a bit of a voyage of its own. Incorporated in 1922 as the Dukes County Historical Society, it was later known as the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society before adopting its present name in 2006 and embarking on a series of high-visibility events and exhibitions, many involving Island schools and community groups. Indeed, the demographics at Friday’s event spanned 20-somethings to grandparents. The audience included steady hands like Denys Wortman and Leo Convery, the Playhouse ensemble, and folks like you and me who are drawn to the energy.

“We wanted to move away from a closed environment to an open place of participation,” Mr. Waters said.

Executive director David Nathans added, “It takes time to change from an academic environment. We would get you to come once a year and that was it. But if we can get you to come five or seven times a year, we’ll become part of your life.”

Both men acknowledged that the quiet work of committed historians and academicians over eight decades provided the treasure trove they are mining today, including the work of Sheldon Hackney and Matthew Stackpole, former museum executive director, who has facilitated a visit to the Island by the Charles W. Morgan to coincide with the Morgan exhibit unveiled this month, featuring America’s oldest commercial sailing vessel still afloat and the last living example from the American whaling fleet.

The exhibit includes a whalebone replica of the ship, images of the ship’s logbook from a Morgan voyage, and an oil portrait of Thomas Adams Norton of Edgartown, the Morgan’s first captain.

Mr. Waters said the volume of stories, data, and information, such as the Morgan exhibit, amassed by museum pioneers, is extraordinary: “Only two percent of the museum’s collection has ever been publicly presented. Just two percent.”

In the corporate world, re-branding an old institution is sometimes likened to turning the Queen Mary with a string: it can be done but you have to be careful and it usually takes a long time. The museum’s transformation has been underway since 2006, fueled by some watershed events, and it has momentum.

The Stan Murphy (painting) and Alfred Eisenstadt (photography) shows, The Enchanted Island exhibits, and the History of Island photography were among marquee events that first caught the public eye, Mr. Nathans said. The museum seems in the business of creating living history for patrons in the mode of Linsey Lee, a museum stalwart who has created a century’s worth of priceless oral history interviews with Island notables.

The fun ain’t over yet. In 2017, the museum will move most of its facility to the Marine Hospital, now being rehabbed, overlooking the Lagoon in Vineyard Haven, as the anchor for a new state-designated cultural district.

Mr. Waters believes that the new-found energy in local libraries and museum, on the Island and elsewhere, is a response to people’s need for more community. “The Island is realizing the importance of hearing and telling history and stories in their lives,” he said.

For more information about the M.V. Museum, call 508-627-4441 or visit