Heralds of history

Martha’s Vineyard Museum trains new volunteers ahead of opening.

Have you wondered about the goings-on inside our new Martha’s Vineyard Museum up on the hill? Well, amid the hubbub of getting the exhibits in place and other final touches, there is a dedicated and excited group of volunteers eagerly preparing to lend a helping hand. Some of them had volunteered at the museum when it was in Edgartown, but here in Vineyard Haven, this is a whole new ball game. The Times recently met with some of the volunteers and staff at the new M.V. Museum to catch up.

“The new campus and building bring an opportunity to expand and professionalize the volunteer corps, who will now be a more integral part of the functioning of the museum,” explained volunteer coordinator Sarah Moore. “They will be working throughout the building in a range of ways: interacting with visitors as docents, guides, greeters, library assistants, working in the gift shop, and more.”

Museum educators Ann DuCharme and Beth Seaborne have been training the docents since the fall. They are gaining a wealth of knowledge about the Island’s history and the museum’s exhibitions. During their weekly trainings, docents are learning how to conduct tours, answer questions, and guide visitors through the museum.

“It’s been great. We have a wonderfully diverse group, and Ann and Beth create such a supportive atmosphere and show such confidence in all of us,” said volunteer guide Kate Hancock. “My education and working life have been centered on the theater, teaching, and most recently, the world of art. The museum combines all those areas. The Vineyard has been a part of my life since I was born, and my husband and I wouldn’t live anywhere else. The museum seems like the perfect place to indulge all my passions, and hopefully give something back in the process.”

Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, and bring their own experience to the museum.

Docent Jo Maxwell spoke about the impetus for her involvement: “I became a volunteer because after being in the restaurant business for over 45 years, the thought of pursuing my ever-present interest in history became a reality as retirement approached. My experience has exceeded all of my expectations. I began helping Ann at the ‘old museum’ [in Edgartown], mostly organizing and wrapping items that were being moved to the museum’s new home. Meeting new people who share a passion for and knowledge about the history of the Island has been very meaningful. I learn something new every time that I am there — and it is so much less stressful than my restaurant life.”

There are two different types of volunteer opportunities in the museum’s library. “In an orientation meeting with Martha’s Vineyard Museum research librarian Bow Van Riper, I was surprised to learn how many facets there are to working in the library,” Janet Hefler, one of the library volunteers, remarked. “There is a wide variety of tasks to choose from, and volunteers can switch from one to the other based on what fits their schedules and lifestyles. I think that kind of flexibility is a real plus for volunteers, and offers opportunities for seasonal as well as year-round residents. Mr. Van Riper stressed that whatever we do will be up to us, based on our likes and dislikes to ensure that we enjoy the experience. If I find data entry a calming task, fine. If it makes me want to run out the front door and jump into the Lagoon, he’ll cross it off my list.”

Hefler said that library volunteers will be offered additional training so they can develop other skills needed for more specific types of research, and more in-depth projects.

“I look forward to helping tourists and Islanders alike enjoy this wonderful expanded resource. As an added bonus, I hope to broaden my own knowledge of the Island through working at the museum. I think it will be fun to help people find information in the library, whether it’s Island facts or family history,” Hefler said. “We learned in our orientation meeting that the dial telephone first came to Vineyard Haven in 1966. Who knew? I might find that useful at one of the local trivia nights sometime, or to redirect an awkward political discussion.”

Visitor services and gift shop volunteers will have training sessions in the coming weeks on how to be of help and service so that museum visitors have the best experience possible. Those volunteering in the Hands-On History Room (an interactive exhibit designed specifically for children and families) will receive training involving information about fishing, whaling, shellfish, and other activities that are a part of this fun exhibit.

“The experience of being trained as a volunteer has made me very excited to be involved in the museum’s new home right from the beginning,” Hefler said. “I can’t wait to see how it evolves over time, and I’ll take pride in knowing that I’ve contributed in some part. Having been in the old Marine Hospital in its former dilapidated condition, I’m in awe of how the building has been transformed, and am so happy that it was. It truly is a gem and a gift for the Island.”

Volunteer Ned Sternick said the experience gives him the opportunity to closely connect with the historical aspects of Martha’s Vineyard: “I’ll enjoy meaningful conversations with visitors and fellow volunteers, get personally involved with fascinating research work, and contribute time and effort to an organization whose mission and goals I strongly support.”

There are still other ways you can get involved as a volunteer at the new museum. “There are many one-off opportunities, where you don’t have to have a set schedule in a set department. This is ideal for people who may have full-time jobs or can’t commit to a set time every week,” said Teresa Kruszewski, the museum’s visitor services and membership manager. “The key to volunteering is having a passion for the museum’s mission to inspire all people to discover, explore, and strengthen their connections to this Island and its diverse heritage. As we learn how visitors experience this new space, additional opportunities for volunteers will present themselves. If you love Martha’s Vineyard and want to share your love of it, volunteering may be for you.”

To learn more, email volunteers@mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441, ext. 117.