Museum Pieces: Universal acceptance

The Island’s history is one of embracing differences.


“We didn’t think anything special about them. They were just like anyone else.” 

Deafness in Chilmark was once very common, and medical anthropologist and author Nora Ellen Groce wrote a book about it, called “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language.” I read an article she wrote for the Dukes County Intelligencer in February 1981, which sort of served as a precursor to that book, titled “The Island’s Hereditary Deaf: A Lesson In Human Understanding.” The quote above was a statement made by a woman Ms. Groce interviewed during her research. Folks were not known by a disability; there was no stigma, they were not separated out as a group, they were individuals like anyone. The Chilmark community was an anomaly, and an example we could benefit from emulating today.

The exhibition that has been with me daily since I started at the museum in September is “They Were Heard: The Unique Voice of the Martha’s Vineyard Deaf Community.” This story has been shared in many ways over the years in varying depths and contexts, and yet this exhibit has brought valuable new insight and perspective to an increasingly mainstream audience. Not only is this a fascinating Island story, indicative of the “Island way” of being brave, working together, and adapting, but a story of an ideal that feels like it should be a foundational aspect of the human experience. For almost three centuries, the residents of Chilmark made an unquestioning pact between hearing and nonhearing folk, to create a universal language that would create a far-ahead-of-its-time, inclusive way of life. Their unique way of communicating kept the isolated village humming efficiently for all. If you haven’t seen this exhibition yet, it’s up through Feb. 18.

The M.V. Museum is a touchstone for our community in ever-growing ways. As times change, stories are revealed, and we continue to learn. Each exhibition the curatorial team manifests offers up these opportunities to remember, learn, and push through previously held notions of things. Discovering ways for us to live more harmoniously is a goal for most of us. When you think about it, why does anyone think they are better than anyone else, or have more important abilities than anyone else? There is as much to learn from someone who can’t hear, is autistic, can’t see, or any number of other things we are born with or without, as there is from someone seemingly unimpaired. We all have something that challenges us, whether visible or invisible. The Chilmark community from 1694 to 1952 was a model for this universal acceptance of one another. There is something to activate the mind at every turn in the museum, and it brings life back into living.

The museum’s planning an epic bash for the opening of “Clifford: Our Big Red Dog” on Saturday, Jan. 27, from 10 am to noon. Browse the exhibit, then enjoy photos and storytime with Clifford, paint a magnet, make a button, participate in a floor puzzle, and nosh on snacks.

Tomorrow during the museum’s Friday Reset, 5 to 8 pm, join us for soup and rolls from Aquila M.V., board games, puzzles, the crafting table, chatting, the first-floor exhibitions, and this week’s feature: Live music! Don’t forget to register for Friday, Jan. 26th’s Pecha Kucha (a Japanese less-talk-more-show storytelling art form). The theme is “pets.” Choose 20 slides of your pet(s), and compose 20 seconds of description for each slide, and let’s make this winter month cozy! There are only nine slots left. Email your desire to participate to

Spread the word, this is your museum, and we want you to fill it with your warmth, creativity, and stories. All of this Friday food and fun is a $20 donation for members, $25 for nonmembers. 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