Museum Pieces: Voices

Island voices of the past come to life, and hear a lighthouse keeper’s story.


“Their lost voices must continue to be heard.” –John Boyne, “Boy in the Striped Pajamas”

Martha’s Vineyard Museum is the protector of hundreds of our Island’s lost voices through the work of longtime oral history curator Linsey Lee. Voices are remarkable. The sound of someone’s voice can stir up all kinds of things — we all have important ones that stabilize, motivate, and comfort us. When we lose those voices, it can be disorienting, and bring on a pain that can be hard to manage. It’s one thing to have the thoughts and ideas from our lost loves, mentors, and historical figures in journals, letters, and books. But hearing their actual voice speaking to us from audio or video recordings brings them back to us in an inexplicable way. Whether it’s people we know and love or not, recordings offer another layer of understanding of the person and our past. This may seem obvious, but like so many things these days, it can get buried in the din and distraction of our high-tech, busy lives. Oral histories are perhaps the most important tool in documenting a more well-rounded record of our history.

Dating back to before we could read and write — when elders would pass down wisdom through storytelling — oral histories are the oldest form of keeping history. We endeavor to gather and retain them for time infinitum. The first modern organized effort to record on tape, preserve, and make available for future research — recollections deemed of historical significance — was initiated by a man named Allan Nevins at Columbia University, in the 1940s. Not 30 short years later, Linsey Lee would begin a journey of thousands of hours recording the voices of Vineyarders, and continues her work today. Recently, Linsey Lee presented a program at the museum of voices and videos of some of the Island’s extraordinary women. Descendants of some of these women were in the audience, and became visibly moved at the sound of their family member’s words. On Tuesday, May 14, at 5:30 pm, Linsey will bring us 12 more short videos from Vineyarders talking about their relationships with the land and sea that surrounds us, excerpted from oral history interviews with Gus Ben David, Fred Fisher, Gladys Widdiss, Caroline Hunter, Elmer Silva, Craig Kingsbury, and others. Read more in “Voices of Land and Sea” with Linsey Lee.

Another program coming up on Wednesday, May 15, is one that will tell stories about an Island Icon, via the perspective of longtime once-lighthouse keeper Richard Skidmore. Gay Head Light has a mystique that has captivated people for almost two centuries. Skidmore will share some of that, coupled with his experiences. Included in his talk will be the delicate process of moving the Lighthouse back from the Cliffs’ edge, as well as helping to create the permanent Gay Head Light exhibition and installation of the famed Fresnel lens that stands elegantly, guiding us still, in the museum’s Pavilion. Skidmore will take us through that exhibit, as well as share photos and lore.

Exhibitions opening soon are “Vineyard Scene: Portraits by Peter Simon” on May 11, and “Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad” on June 8. There are countless ways to take in our Island history, and Martha’s Vineyard Museum is an ever-evolving location with a purpose and desire to function properly for this community. Your participation is greatly appreciated, and necessary, to make MVM a place where we all feel acknowledged and represented. Please come on up the hill and see what we are creating together, bit by bit, voice by voice.

Visit for more information about upcoming exhibitions and events. Open Tuesday through Sunday year-round. Regular hours are 10 am to 4 pm, and summer season hours are 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is free to members; admission for nonmembers is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, $5 for children 7 to 17, and free for children 6 and under. Islander rates are available.