Home can be a sanctuary, a community, a place of yearning, and the new exhibition at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum looks at home from many different angles, using engaging art, audio recordings, and places for visitors to give feedback. Ideally, as the introductory panel says, home “provides a sense of safety, stability, and a chance to put down roots.” But the show simultaneously takes on the serious affordable housing shortage, and its ramifications for the Island and the people who live here — or those who are trying to.
Anna Barber, curator of exhibitions, took me through the exhibit, beginning with the caveat of how enormous the idea of home is and the challenge of exploring it in a limited space. “We could fill a hundred museums with this topic. It is such a critical, sensitive, and challenging issue on the Island right now. This is the tip of the iceberg,” Barber explained.
The show begins with a historical context. The Wampanoag people have been calling this Island home for millennia. As you enter the large gallery, to your right is a 1779 map of the Island that shows the early impacts of English colonization, and a corresponding 1810 petition describing efforts taken by members of the Wampanoag community to address land theft.
In the next section, “Building a Home,” we learn that more than a thousand buildings date back at least a century, with hundreds even older. Some of what you see are photographs that reveal the evolution from the simple homes in the 1600s to the distinct Colonial and Cape-style ones that, as the wall label tells us, help give the Vineyard its distinct architectural personality.
“Building a Neighborhood” has maps and images that speak to the fact that the Vineyard, starting in the 1800s, had plans for constructing specific neighborhoods. There was Wesleyan Grove, established in 1835. There is the Campground — with fabulous stereoscope photographs you can view, showing the growth from the early decorated tents through the building of the gingerbread-style cottages, and an 1800 plat map used to sell lots and sporting slogans such as, “Why not own a Summer Cottage at Lagoon Heights …The most charming spot on this island of the sea.”
“When Is a Home Not a House?” provides a fun twist on the idea, with a late 19th century painting of a whaling ship frozen into the ice for the winter, and outfitted as the crew’s home until the spring thaw and return of the whales. There are also two mid–20th century wood dioramas of small shacks with figures of fishermen, living in these shelters. These “alternative” homes, Barber says, “dotted the landscape, and people repurposed and slept in them, and they became other forms of home. And today, sometimes people make them their home full-time, and they are at a premium now.”
Thinking about community as home explores how it can be the people around us, whether it is those you live with or those in your church, town, or a local organization. An iconic Vineyard example is the Polar Bears — the inclusive, welcoming group who have met for early morning swims at Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs for more than 75 years, to share community and fellowship.
A good portion of the exhibit looks at the challenging issue of finding a home, and who gets to have one. As the wall label says: “In recent years, even off-season rentals that were once easy to find have become increasingly limited. The rise of short-term rental companies like Airbnb, combined with the influx of people moving to the Island during the COVID-19 pandemic, has made it difficult for year-round residents to afford homeownership or find long-term rental options.”
Artist and educator Jenny Hersh’s stunning large, cedar-shingled house titled “Quiet, Clean Female ISO [in search of] Room” brings the issue home, so to speak. With no entrances. and shingles imprinted with rental listings gathered during her months-long online search for seasonal housing, the piece speaks volumes about the frustrating search for a home. In the accompanying audio recording, Hersh speaks about the past nine years, during which time she has not lived in one place for longer than nine months, and how it led to the creation of the artwork.
Perhaps the most unsettling piece in the show is an electronic screen with a map of the Vineyard that shows in time-lapse form dots indicating the number of buildings that have increased throughout the Island at a climbing rate, starting in 1660 and projected for the next 70-some years. Built by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, it brings to the fore the tension between development, which includes housing for the Island’s population, and the need for land conservation.
“Affordable Housing” by Chioke Morais comes from his experience of winning the housing lottery program that year-round residents can enter to purchase a lot or home at below-market price. The large, framed portion of the shingled side of a building with a hammer in the center, with bills for supplies and materials, reflects that even if you are lucky enough to win, the exorbitant cost of necessary goods and services raises the question of what is actually affordable.
On the right, just before you leave, is a small gallery with Valerie Reese’s miniature model of a Vineyard Camp. This sobering “doll house” speaks volumes. Reese lived in a similar home for nearly 40 years, and the owners sold it, leaving her still struggling to find stable housing. “It looks very sweet, but it’s almost like a memorial to a house she’ll never have, even though she lived in it for almost four decades,” says Barber.
The final room welcomes visitors to post their ideas about what home looks like to them. Lining the opposite wall are early 20th century naturalization documents from the Dukes County Courthouse that represent some of the many recognizable Island names, including Silvia, Duarte, and Alley, who came from countries far and wide to make a new home on this small bit of land.
Reflecting on the exhibit, Barber says, “Whether someone has lived here their whole life, or if they are just on the Vineyard for the day, home is a connecting point into our history and our communities. I wanted there to be empathy and a greater understanding of the vast number of experiences of people who have tried or have been fortunate enough to make their home here — some for thousands of years, some trying to make it work since the 1970s, and some young people who find the artistic spirit of the Island so alluring that they are trying to make it work.”
Ultimately, she concludes, “I wanted to open the door and allow people to glimpse the myriad of experiences around the topic of home.”
“Home” is on view through Jan. 7 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. For more information, visit mvmuseum.org/exhibition/home.