100 years of history

Celebrating the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s centennial with a look at how it all began.


The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is celebrating its 100th birthday with a series of exhibitions and events that reflect the changes in their vision, growth, and purpose as the organization has evolved over the years. What began as a small group of like-minded Islanders wanting to preserve their history and informal collections of objects has become a state-of-the-art museum with a broad interpretation of Island history and culture.

Interest in forming historical societies was a phenomenon across America in the early years of the 20th century and Martha’s Vineyard was no exception. The Dukes County Historical Society was incorporated in 1923. Members met in each other’s living rooms, churches, or libraries, and stored their collections of artifacts in the vault at the Edgartown National Bank. They were rather a homogenous group of educated, middle-class, old-line Yankee descent. Henry Beetle Hough, who had recently arrived on the Island to become editor of the Vineyard Gazette, was an early member.

One of the notable early female members was Emma Mayhew Whiting, who researched and wrote “Whaling Wives of Martha’s Vineyard,” published in 1953, with Henry Beetle Hough. She was the wife of Johnson Whiting and lived in the Old Parsonage on State Road in the center of West Tisbury. She was a poet, a writer, a methodical and careful researcher, fortunate to be alive at the right time to know and interview at first-hand the women she wrote about.

In 1930, the Dukes County Historical Society was able to acquire the Thomas Cooke House. Ethelinda Mayhew, who lived in the house, left her share to the Society, assuming that members would be able to raise enough money to buy out her siblings, who were co-owners. Her assumption was correct and the house became the center of an eventual campus on the corner of Cooke Street and School Street in Edgartown.

Imagine owning a perfectly preserved house built in 1766, one of the few 18th-century houses on the Island that remained as it was. There was no heat, electricity, or running water, limiting its public use to the summer months. But it was a historical structure that would give the organization a presence and a validation of its purpose. There was also space for storage, meetings, and displaying some of the society’s collection.

The Society and its collection continued to grow and, by the late 1940s, it was able to purchase a piece of land adjoining the Cooke House property on which they built a cinder-block structure to serve as a library. It was heated and had a fireplace, making it usable year-round.

Next, they added a boat shed and a replica of a whaleship’s tryworks. A fundraising campaign that welcomed donations from school children and adults alike, raised money to construct a 15-foot replica of the upper story of Gay Head Light. The tower was designed to hold the first-order Fresnel lens that had stood atop the real brick tower at Gay Head for nearly a century. Electricity had come to Gay Head in 1951, rendering the old lens unnecessary.

The Coast Guard agreed to donate it to the Society on the condition that they would protect and preserve it. The lens had been designed in France, with 1008 glass prisms to magnify the brightness of oil lamp light that illuminated the lighthouse, making it visible far out at sea. The Fresnel lens has been a much-admired feature of the collection ever since.

By the end of the 1950s, the Historical Society was still a small, elite group of Yankee ancestry whose primary interests were the history of early settlers and missionaries, the whaling industry, and the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Much of the collection reflected their interest in the Island’s whaling history. Harpoons, lances, knives, hooks, ship’s logs, a pair of trypots, carved and decorated scrimshaw implements are some of the relics from whaling ships.

The arrival of Gale Huntington marked a new, more outward-reaching perspective for the Historical Society. A long-time Chilmark summer person, he moved here year-round in the 1930s. He was a farmer, a fisherman, a musician, an amateur archaeologist, a historian and a teacher of history and civics, leading to his interest in the Historical Society. He wrote “Songs the Whalemen Sang,” a collection of sea chanteys, in 1964. For the Historical Society he wrote for and edited the Dukes County Intelligencer. The first issue was dated August 1959, and so it remained until 2018 when its name was changed to the MV Museum Quarterly.

In 1977, the Society constructed an addition to the library that doubled the size of the building. The new section was sided with cedar shingles, making its outside appearance more in keeping with the traditional Vineyard houses surrounding it. Besides an attic for offices and a basement for storage, the main floor of the new addition was left open, as a basic box that could be reconfigured in different ways to mount curated, designed exhibitions. The earliest displays still featured maritime artifacts, but there was a view toward possibilities, and away from the limitations of the Cooke House with its small rooms filled with period furniture. Attitudes were changing, too, reflecting a view that recognized the contributions of Wampanoag, African-American, and Portuguese Islanders to Vineyard history and culture.

Gale Huntington retired as editor of the Intelligencer in 1983 and Art Railton took over, becoming the longest serving editor, his tenure lasting until his retirement in 2006. His book “The History of Martha’s Vineyard,” published that year, drew on his nearly 30 years as editor. Tom Norton, Marion Halperin, Jill Bouck, and Bruce Andrews served as curator/directors into the 1990s. Matthew Stackpole became the executive director in 2000; he served until 2007, followed by Keith Gorman (2007-2009), David Nathans (2009-2016), and Phil Wallis (2016-2021). Heather Seger has held the position since 2021.

During this time, other organizations on the Island that had collected historical artifacts began down-sizing, merging, or just closing out their operations. Much of this material, from the DAR, Seamen’s Bethel, and Tisbury Museum came to the Dukes County Historical Society, greatly expanding the collection. The Society was able to purchase the Capt. Thomas Pease House, which occupied the land next to the library and boat shed. The Pease House completed the Edgartown campus, and provided much-needed space for the burgeoning collection and for offices.

In 1996, the Dukes County Historical Society renamed itself the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society. In 2006, it became the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, a name that reflected new priorities and new programs. Reaching out to the community with educational opportunities for kids and families, lectures, concerts, and special exhibitions that were designed to attract visitors, and to engage them in more interactive ways. Some of the memorable exhibitions during that time included a collection of posters that Ted and Jane Farrow designed and printed every year for their store, Tashtego. There was a display of Ted and Polly Meinelt’s collection of Christmas ornaments and decorations, with many of the Christmas cards that Ted painted and sent to friends. Another was a small exhibition of Stan Murphy’s paintings with studies and drawings he did in preparation for his large canvases. It was a wonderful, exciting time to come to the museum.

These changes led to the decision in 2010 to purchase the historic Marine Hospital from the St. Pierre family and renovate the building to accommodate their new vision of what the museum could be. Working with architect Conrad Ello of Oudens Ello, the museum began the lengthy project. It was important to preserve the character of the 1895 building while incorporating modern systems like climate control for paper and artifacts. Talking with Bow Van Riper one afternoon in the library that is his bailiwick, he described how the floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed abundant fresh air for recovering hospital patients were kept in place, then overlaid with shatterproof, ultraviolet filtering glass to protect the collections.

The building is a respectful marry-up of old and new, much as Bow described. Old wooden floors and staircase, trim details, high ceilings, light from those tall windows, it has retained the spirit of the period. There are small, intimate rooms for temporary exhibitions like Lucy Mitchell’s Cabinet of Curiosities, the seashells, stones, twigs, bird’s nests, and other materials she has collected to use in her drawings, collages, and installations. The long upstairs hallway serves as an introduction, leading one to smaller exhibitions, or to segments of a major exhibition that culminates at the end of the hall. Modern additions to the building have been carefully designed to enhance, yet seem almost invisible, seamless.

There is a larger, newly built boathouse, Doherty Hall, filled with treasures too large to fit into the museum’s rooms. Harpoons and other whaling implements, a racing whaleboat, a Noman’s Land boat of distinctive design, half-hull models, and a restored peddler’s wagon are among the exhibits. One of the special centennial shows that will open on June 17 is “The Perfect Craft: Wooden Boat Building, Then and Now.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum opened its new Vineyard Haven campus to the public in March 2019. Visitors entered through a glass-enclosed space, were greeted by a wall-sized photograph by Dan Waters of Tom Vogl and Katherine Long holding one of their chickens, walked to the left to look at items from the museum’s permanent collection, or turned right up the stairs to begin exploring rooms along that magical hallway that held portions of the main event, an exhibition of work by Thomas Hart Benton. In the small rooms were early drawings, paintings, photographs, the artist’s paint box, brushes, and tubes of paint, the fabulous portraits that Benton and Denys Wortman painted of each other in their studios. You may read about the show in an article I wrote for the July 24, 2019 Martha’s Vineyard Times.

Since then, the museum has expanded its concept of what Island history is and who made it. Executive director Heather Seger explained the museum’s goal “to include more diverse voices in our storytelling in order to give a more complete history of our Island and all of the people who have called it home.” Recent exhibits have featured Wampanoag weavings, eel pots, extinct birds, the beginnings of the Vineyard’s Jewish community, and stories of enslaved Vineyarders. Many have an interactive component or have oral history conversations to watch.

The next “blockbuster” will be “From ‘the Kid’ to Miss West: The Extraordinary Life of Dorothy West.” It opened on Saturday, May 27, and will run through Sept. 10. All of the 2023 centennial year exhibitions have been chosen to highlight the museum’s commitment to “telling familiar stories from new perspectives and presenting new stories,” a quote from Anna Barber, curator of exhibitions and programming.

On Wednesday, July 12, the Museum is hosting100 Years and Counting: A Community Celebration, from 3 to 5 pm. There will be interactive exhibits, scavenger hunts, crafts, music, and food trucks.

The museum’s website cites the following mission statement. “Martha’s Vineyard Museum strives to provide a framework for understanding the past in order to create a better future.”

May we all strive to do so.

The author thanks Bow Van Riper for his contributions to this article.