Museum Pieces: Maritime history and more

Past disasters at sea illustrate how the Island community has always pulled together.


“History is who we are, and why we are the way we are.”  –David McCullough

Island author David McCullough was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, who believed that “history is the story of people.” The M.V. Museum concurs, recognizing our role as stewards of the Vineyard’s history and culture, aiming to represent and be guided by the many people from diverse cultural backgrounds that have resided here, and still do. From inside the walls of the museum, you can feel the energy of our community moving through the spaces. Whether you are a frequent visitor or a new arrival, the museum is a living organism that becomes what is needed. There is always something going on here that makes each visit feel brand-new. Maybe the sunlight filtering through one of the many windows changes the way something looks, or highlights something we hadn’t noticed before. Maybe it’s an encounter with one of the staff members, who enjoys furthering our understanding of an exhibition. Maybe it’s just the state of mind we’re in.

Recently, I found myself on the lower level of the pavilion, taking in the stories of shipwrecks and lifesaving events that demonstrate early examples of heroic community effort when the going gets tough. For instance, survivors of the wreck of the steamer City of Columbus, off Gay Head in 1884, owed their lives to two crews of Wampanoag boatmen who rowed through freezing waves to reach them. Once ashore, they were cared for by folks in nearby homes — fed, dried, and warmed. This scene was repeated in Vineyard Haven during the Gale of 1898, and off Chappaquiddick in 1910, when Capt. Levi Jackson and the crew of the fishing boat Priscilla rescued all 13 people, and a dog, aboard the wrecked schooner Mertie B. Crowley. More recently, when the ferry Islander hit an uncharted rock off Oak Bluffs in March 1980, and limped back to port in danger of sinking, aid from across the Island converged on the wharf. Divers to inspect the damage, fire engines to lend their pumps to the struggle against the rising water, and donated mattresses to serve as temporary patches. Their efforts bought time for the Coast Guard to arrive, and once repaired, Islander sailed for another 27 years.

These stories are exciting tales of maritime adventure, but they’re also more than that. They tell us who we are — a community of people willing to pool resources to help others in greater need. They also suggest why we are that way — being surrounded by an ocean as unpredictable as life is reminds us over and over that forces that might overwhelm us individually can be handled more easily when we cooperate. Research librarian Bow Van Riper is a reliable, ever-present, and encouraging mentor for me and many others, as he helps us learn more about our Island every day.

Beginning Jan. 5, the museum will be starting something new: It’s called “The Friday Reset,” and will cater to the many whims and ways we relax, relieve stress, and regroup. Come for the light bites, board games, puzzles, create something at the crafting table (yes, adults need to craft too!), reading (bring your book club … or not), chatting, taking in the first-floor exhibitions, hands-on history (for family fun), or enjoy any of the weekly features, such as trivia (there are prizes), Pecha Kucha (a Japanese less-talk-more-show storytelling art form), “Ask Bow” (our research librarian), live music, poetry readings, and more. Spread the word — this is your museum and we want you to fill it with your warmth, creativity, and stories. All of this plus evening access to the museum, a snack, and coffee, cocoa, or tea, is a $20 donation for members or $25 for nonmembers. Additional “light bites” will be available in the cafe. We want you here, so contact me if you have questions.

Visit for more about membership, 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. Questions, feedback, or a story you’d like to share? Please email me at