Museum Pieces: Exploring Island history

There is so much to learn when we listen to the stories that we all have to tell.

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“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives.”

This statement from artist Maira Kalman, which I came across by accident the other day, hit me deeply. I recently began a whole new chapter in my life, after 32 years in radio, and have found myself doing just that, slowing my roll a bit to take in our past in ways I hadn’t before. The museum field and radio are more linked than I had ever realized: At their core, both are about telling stories. Heather Seger, executive director of the M.V. Museum, encouraged me with that comparison.

I have always valued people’s stories. They help us shape our own lives, evolve, and increase our empathy and understanding. Walking through the museum has been a revelation demonstrating this very quote, and I am over the moon in my new position as the director of programs and audience engagement. There is a sensational team here at the museum. I am in awe of the deep and wide-ranging consideration, appreciation, and intellect that each person takes into their job, and how quick to respond and open they are to feedback from the community. Their hearts are in it, and Nancy Luce would be proud.

Like most people, I knew that Nancy Luce was known as the “chicken lady of Martha’s Vineyard,” a 19th century poet and entrepreneur who was proud to walk in her own rhythm. In my short time at the museum, though, I’ve learned how much else I didn’t know about her. As a young woman, Nancy was an accomplished rider who confidently jumped her horse over fences and stone walls. She rode astride the horse as a man would, wearing a shorter-than-usual dress with longer-than-usual drawers underneath to facilitate pulling up her skirts. Research librarian Bow Van Riper also shared that she designed a subterranean, brick-lined chicken house — eight feet in diameter and five feet deep — that lay under the corner of her house, and had a hatch that opened to admit sunlight. It reflected her belief that hens needed to be treated kindly, and given a clean, comfortable place to live if they were going to produce well. Apparently it worked, because her flock of eight hens produced 1,500 eggs a year (nearly 200 per bird) — “outstanding in a home flock in those days,” according to her biographer. Her treatment of chickens might remind us that we all feel better when we receive and give that kind of regard.

Find out how history can change us by visiting our current exhibitions. “Home,” which urges visitors to think about what it means to find a home on the Vineyard, is an eye-opener for all ages, and open through Jan. 7. Another, “1923: A Kid’s Life,” a hands-on experience of what a day in the life of an Island kid was like back then, is on view through Feb. 4. “They Were Heard,” an in-depth exhibition on our Island’s prolific and large population of deaf people, who between 1694 and 1952 created an unusual Island understanding in which M.V. Sign Language was fundamental, is up until Feb. 18. A mini “Jaws” exhibition will be displayed through March 24, in anticipation of a larger exhibit planned for the 50th anniversary of Jaws in 2025!

Also, tonight, Thursday, Dec. 14, at 5:30 pm, “Winter Melodies with Rose Guerin and Jeremy Berlin” will ease our nerves and press our reset button, a cheerful way to catch up with friends and family. Admission includes wine, coffee, tea, or cocoa.

Something really special will be happening on Friday evenings beginning in the New Year. Details to come!

Visit mvmuseum.org for tickets and more about our programs and exhibits. The M.V. Museum is celebrating 100 years as an ever-evolving institution committed to serving people who love the Vineyard, inspiring us to discover, explore, and strengthen our connections to this Island and its diverse heritage. Help us make our next 100 years all it can be.

In this column, count on anecdotal Island history, museum news, and happenings that will hopefully make you want to come up the hill for a visit. Have questions, feedback, or a story you’d like to share? Please email me at lredington@mvmuseum.org.