Votes for Women: An Island Perspective

How the Martha’s Vineyard Museum assembles an exhibit.

Part of the MV Museum's collection.

This story was originally published in MV Arts & Ideas.

Activist Barbara Lee has said her efforts to get women elected were inspired by her suffragist grandmother’s stories about the suffragist movement and women getting the right to vote. She encouraged an exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on the Blackwells on the Island — a family that included the country’s first doctor (Elizabeth Blackwell), the first woman ordained minister (Antoinette Blackwell), as well as several family members prominent in the suffrage movement.

MV Arts and Ideas Magazine talked with exhibitions assistant Kate Logue, who spoke about how the museum assembles an exhibit. The museum’s suffragist exhibit, currently planned for the fall, will look back on the long fight for women’s suffrage in America through the lens of the Island and the women who lived here.

Arts & Ideas: What’s your role at the museum?
Kate Logue: I am the Exhibitions Assistant here at the Museum. That means I work on all elements of the exhibits, everything from helping Anna Barber, the Manager of Exhibitions and Programming, plan the exhibition schedule for the upcoming year to installing artifacts and formatting and printing labels.

How did you end up being in charge of the Suffragist exhibit?
In general, I handle all the smaller installations at the Museum and then Anna, Bonnie (the Chief Curator), and I take turns on who is lead for the larger exhibits. In this case, we decided I would handle the two Community Gallery exhibits that were originally planned for this summer so that Anna could focus on the Jaws exhibit, which was going to be in all four upstairs galleries but now has sadly been postponed.   

When did the planning begin for this exhibit?
We knew we wanted to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in some way, so we first started talking about this exhibit last year when making the exhibit schedule for the next few years. Working on the details of the exhibition itself didn’t get underway until this past winter and I had only just begun to dive into serious research when the pandemic hit in March.

How do the early conversations go when you folks have decided that you’ll have a certain exhibit? What’s the first thing you do, and how does it unroll from there?
The process varies a bit depending on the exhibit. If it’s a collaborative exhibit where we are working with an artist, outside expert, or another organization that can really shape the exhibit process. But in general, it usually starts with research. I will begin by reading up on the topic. I’ll look into coverage of it in the local newspapers; talk to Bow, our research librarian, to find out about any archives, reference files, or books we have related to the topic; and of course, search our collections database to see what artifacts, images, and oral histories we have that are relevant.
Once I begin to get a sense of the story and what the strengths of our collection are related to it I will start to write an outline and select things to include in the exhibit. At that point, I might also look into loans or images from other sources to supplement what we have in house. Then begins the tricky process of reconciling the story I want to tell, the objects and images I have to tell that story, and the physical space of the gallery.

Can you tell me about where you got some of the photos, objects, and ephemera in this group? Were there any lucky finds? How, for instance, did you find the Radcliffe images?
We knew we wanted to tell this story, but at the same time we had very few artifacts that directly related to it. The little “Votes For Women” button was one of the things we did have, but it wasn’t enough to build a whole exhibit around.
One story we wanted to include was that of Lucy Stone and the Blackwells. Lucy was one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement and was married to Henry Blackwell, whose family included a number of other remarkable women. They all summered here on the Island. The Museum has some material related to the family, like the photograph shown here of several family members in a boat, which was taken by Alice Stone Blackwell, Henry and Lucy’s daughter, but not a lot of the material dealt directly with the specific stories I wanted to tell.
I knew from early research I had done that the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University had an extensive collection related to the family. Luckily, much of that collection has been digitized so I could easily access it while working from home during the pandemic. It really helped my research and I was able to source several images, including this portrait of Alice, to help bring the story to life. Another lucky break we had was a descendant of the Blackwell family, Catha Day-Carlson, reached out and offered to loan some items for the exhibit, including this spoon engraved with Lucy’s name.

What do you aim for in an exhibit such as this one, that would be held in a single room? Can you describe the variety of textures, items, etc that you hope to use?
If we are able to do this exhibit, it will be in the Waggaman Community Gallery. This gallery can be a bit tricky to design for, especially for a narrative-heavy exhibit like this one that relies a lot on archival material, just because of how the windows and doors break up the space and the light they let in. The exhibit will likely include quite a few reproductions of newspaper clippings and photographs and I am hoping to have a large wall graphic of an Amelia Watson watercolor to help balance out the beige, black, and white nature of those materials and set the scene for the era this was all happening in. If I weren’t doing this in the time of COVID I would want to include listening stations for oral histories and some sort of interactive element, but unfortunately I think we will have to skip those.

How has the planning for this exhibit been impacted by the pandemic? At press time, what are the plans for this exhibit?
I was only just getting started with the research when the pandemic hit and I had to switch to working from home. I ended up spending the first week at home reading a book on the suffrage movement in Massachusetts and going through the reference files and finding aids I was able to grab from the Museum on my last day in the office. It was only relatively recently I could get back into the archives and look at some of this material. Luckily, the Gazette was able to provide scans of newspaper clippings and I was able to find a lot of material online. Unluckily, the pandemic meant I didn’t pursue some potential loans because we weren’t sure how to handle the logistics of that during these uncertain times.
Our hope is to open the interior galleries sometime this summer and to have this exhibit up in the fall. If that doesn’t end up working out we still want to acknowledge this anniversary, so we will be doing an online version of the exhibit.