Cats and Dogs reign at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Nelson Amaral and one of his hunting hounds. — Photo by Linsey Lee

Fan of furry friends? The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has a limited-engagement exhibit showcasing Islanders and their pets. Wagging its tail in the intimate Spotlight Gallery, the show features paintings, drawings, photographs, artifacts, and rich oral histories of Vineyard residents and their lovable companions.

The charming exhibit is fun for all, and a perfect museum primer for children who love animals, as curators artfully included engaging, accessible questions on each placard caption. “Do you think these dogs belonged to the whaling ship?” sits posed below a snow-laden 1890s painting by whaling crewman John Bertonccini. The tempera-on-sailcloth depicts an Arctic whaling expedition with dogs huddled in the foreground.

Norman Bridwell, the recently deceased Vineyard author and illustrator, creator of the beloved blimp-size Clifford the Big Red Dog, is featured with original cels from his books and poignant excerpts from his interview with M.V. Museum Oral History Curator Linsey Lee. Mr. Bridwell explains that after boilerplate rejections from the big publishing houses, a reader for Scholastic was able to get Clifford on the right lap. Originally published in 1963, the loyal, fire-engine red canine starred in more than 75 books, and was translated for French, German, Italian, Greek, Brazilian, Tasmanian, and Singaporean children. At one point he tells Ms. Lee that the French audiences called Clifford “Ketchup … red and sweet, I guess!”

In Lee’s skillful interview, she captures Bridwell’s candid emotion on how Clifford has touched young lives throughout his rich half-century. In one story he explains that at a book signing, a father told Bridwell that his autistic son had never reacted to a book. Upon reading “Clifford,” the boy pointed and said, “Red dog.” Bridwell said that he and the father began to cry; “something about Clifford reaches through a barrier.” Bridwell gives the dog credit for reaching children when adults can’t –– like when a Clifford read-a-thon was used by New York teachers post-9/11 to lift young spirits and engender hope for children affected by the trauma.

In another nearly dozen oral-history excerpts from Islanders in the exhibit, David Crohan, renowned pianist, speaks about his experiences with seeing-eye dogs. Recounting his story to Lee, Mr. Crohan tells of his first residency at a guide dog school, where he trained to be an owner and subsequently adopted his dog Skipper. He remembers how at the occasion of Skipper’s death years later, Dorothy West wrote an obituary for the dog that could rival any human’s.

Artist John Athearn speaks about the lineage of barn cats on the Vineyard, and how he grew up with cats and kittens crawling everywhere. Mr. Athearn tells Lee about the acrobatic antics of Clyde, a resident feline of Grey Barn Farm, who knew how to gingerly climb down a ladder after swinging over the loft rafters. There’s also Nelson Amaral, who recollects the baying of his hunting dogs as president of the M.V. Rod and Gun Club for nearly three decades, “They bay, it’s music too … I got so that I’d much rather listen to the dogs than shoot…. I’d leave the gun in the clubhouse … I just love to watch the dogs and listen to them.”

Bolstered by the voices of Vineyard pet lovers captured through Ms. Lee’s invaluable oral histories, the exhibit is thoughtfully curated with artifacts, pottery, antique games (like a curious cat tiddlywinks) and accented with stunning photographic portraits like the captivating “Boy Holding His Cat” from the early 1900s by Edward Lee Luce. The exhibit also serves as a fundraiser for Martha’s Vineyard Animal Shelter via a cleverly delineated donation bin: Vote with your dollars — cat person? Dog person? Or both?

The exhibit runs until Jan. 26 during regular museum hours. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is open year-round, Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is free to members; admission for nonmembers is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for children ages 6 to 15, and free for children under age 6.