The evening started with champagne, ended with fireworks over Vineyard Haven Harbor, and had a keynote address by legendary author David McCullough sandwiched in between. To say the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s 21st annual Evening of Discovery had firepower would be an understatement.
The weather, which was threatening to put on a show of its own with thunderstorms and hail, provided just enough sprinkles to give participants a reason to carry colorful umbrellas.
Saturday’s event was billed as the opening gala for the museum, which now occupies the renovated 1895 Marine Hospital overlooking the harbor. And while the museum opened its doors in March, it opened in all its splendor Saturday night, with more than 550 people sipping cocktails, feasting on lobster and beef tenderloin, and sharing the Island’s rich history.
This opening had buzz.
Looking like a proud father giving a toast at his daughter’s wedding, Phil Wallis, the museum’s executive director, said the new building had already welcomed 7,000 visitors through its doors — 2,000 more than any year at the Edgartown campus. Membership is up to 1,500 people, more than half of them new members, and 700 students have already visited on field trips.
“The building is splendid beyond what you could have imagined,” he said. The building provides the Vineyard’s artifacts “the home they deserve.”
McCullough stole the audience’s heart by giving a nod to his wife, Rosalee, one of seven generations of Islanders. “I married up,” he said as he asked her stand for a round of applause.
“The lessons of history are innumerable, but one of the more obvious lessons, and one that we cannot forget or ignore, is that very seldom is anything of consequence accomplished alone,” McCullough said. It was unclear in that moment whether he was talking about his own distinguished writing career with his wife’s support, or the community effort it took to turn an aging building into the glistening museum on the hill — or perhaps it was both.
“Look at what you’ve all done. It’s phenomenal,” McCullough said.
Michele Norris, the former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the evening’s emcee, asked everyone to stand. “I believe that everybody who was involved in this incredible museum is deserving of our applause and a standing ovation for taking this building and breathing life and history, for creating a multifacted gem right here on this Island,”
Norris introduced McCullough as “an early believer” in the Vineyard Haven project. “He has helped us understand this very complex country we call home. He has helped us understand the importance of embracing history. He has helped us as individuals understand the importance of finding the eye of history … And he is someone who has helped us understand the beautiful treasure that Martha’s Vineyard is.”
History is not just about politics and war, McCullough said. “History is about people, so it’s also therefore about art and music, science and innovation, and ideas.”
(McCullough is already a legend in this writer’s eyes, but when he gave a shout-out to teachers, saying they deserve “more gratitude” and “more attention,” well, he solidified his position on that pedestal. “No one does more important work than our teachers,” he said to applause. “They are shaping the future.”)
McCullough told the story of Jervis and Ephraim Cutler, brothers who carried on the pioneering spirit of their father, Mannaseh Cutler. In 1872, Ephraim Cuter was a member of the legislature in the newly formed state of Ohio, where thre was a movement to re-establish slavery. “The day the vote was to be decided, he was so ill, he couldn’t get out of bed … It’s said they carried him on a stretcher into the legislature. Whether that is really how it happened, we don’t know … He gave a powerful speech, and they voted, and the movement, the project to admit slaves, was defeated by one vote. And that man came from Martha’s Vineyard.”
Ephraim Cutler went on to establish the first college west of the Alleghenies. “There are no end to the surprises to be found in history,” McCullough said.
Steve Ewing, the Island’s poet laureate and a self-described Island kid, provided some of the evening’s lighter moments with the poem he wrote for the occasion. He said Wallis asked to read it before the event. “What are you, nuts? I finished it an hour ago,” he said to hearty laughs.
And then he read from “New Light”: “From this steep harbor rise, I see far out. Your children are coming closer. They can feel my freedom, you have laid so clear and clean. They bring hot summer sand on their busy Island feet. They lift me high with their young voices, their rich young Island minds.”
It’s on the Island, Norris said, that her children learned about community, pointing to the diversity in the room.
“History makes us richer. History makes us stronger, it makes me ever grateful for this magnificent rock. I believe that history has its own energy. That it finds its way into the right hands,” Norris said, naming Wallis and members of the museum board. “History has found its way into the right hands, and we are so grateful for it.”
Stever Aubrey, chairman of the museum’s board of directors, thanked the “unflappable staff,” the “army of volunteers,” and made a pitch to the donors to continue their support to keep the museum moving forward.
“All of us, you, should be proud. Proud of what this place represents to the Island,” Aubrey said. “It’s a touchstone. It reveals our past, it enlivens our present, and certainly it promotes a vibrant future.”