Museum Pieces: The Cooke House renaissance


We wake up each morning, some of us with a plan, others of us wondering what to do. It can be said that the more we know who we are, the easier it is to make each day meaningful and move toward something of value. Knowing what has already been accomplished in the world can give us a strong foundation on which to build. Martha’s Vineyard Museum is not just a building to pass through, gazing at old things. It is a home for our collective history, telling stories that validate, ground, and clarify. The more we know, see, and feel our past, the more sure-footed we can be in leading the life we want to.

I was poring over a volume of our M.V. Museum Quarterly from May of last year on the 100th anniversary of the museum, and came across an article called “The Great Expansion: 1945–1960” that captivated me. It began, “Seventeen years and a world war separated the acquisition of the Cooke House from its purchase of the adjacent parcel of land, described in council-meeting minutes as ‘the Meyer Property.’” It went on to describe the opportunities this property offered. At a cost of $4,000 for the land alone, the purchase was doable at the time, and so began the long life of the Dukes County Historical Society, now MVM. One of the first opportunities came in 1951, when the DCHS won out over stiff competition to win the bid to acquire Gay Head’s Fresnel lens, which was being retired from 95 years of service for a new, electrified system. This lens continues to glow and guide us as the centerpiece of the museum’s new home on the hill in Vineyard Haven.

With the move from the original site of the DCHS at the Cooke House in Edgartown, there was concern that this storied house would be forgotten and lost. However, this summer will see a revival of sorts. After four years, we hope you will join us for its reawakening, as we offer a six-week series of lectures about Edgartown history from some of our Island’s most celebrated storytellers.

Beginning Monday, July 8, and on each Monday through August 12 at 4 pm, speakers will regale us with exciting tales of Edgartown’s fascinating history. Longtime Edgartown resident Nancy Vietor will speak about her commitment to the legacy gardens she helped bring to life. Vietor will take attendees on a tour of its different parts, each having its own story and value to our history.

The following week we will hear from Island historian and co-founder of the African American Heritage Trail of M.V., Elaine Cawley Weintraub, who will talk about the legend of Nancy Michael and her family. Nancy Michael was known to bless or curse the success and safety of whaling ships, depending on how she was treated.

On Monday, July 22, renowned author and longtime former Oak Bluffs columnist Skip Finley will speak about whaling captains of color.

On July 30, MVM research librarian Bow Van Riper will share some history about Edgartown whaling, and what was happening back home while the ships were away.

Alexis Moreis, raised on Martha’s Vineyard, is a conservationist, and a council member and the tribal historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Chappaquiddick, and graduate of Brown University. She continues to live on Noepe and Chappaquiddick, as her Wôpanâak family has for 12,000 years. On August 5, Moreis will bring a unique perspective of what we know about Edgartown — the perspective of the first people to inhabit this land.

Finally, on August 12, Island historian, educator, and photographer Chris Baer will bring us stories about forgotten people and places from Edgartown’s past.

We are excited to share these stories from the Cooke House this summer. Please spread the word that MVM has not forgotten about this magnificent environment in Edgartown!

Visit for more information about upcoming exhibitions and events. The museum is 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.