By Brittany Bowker
First, it was a marine hospital. Then, a summer camp. Now, it’s the Martha’s Vineyard Museum — the Island’s newest cultural and historic installment. After over 50 years on School Street in Edgartown, the museum outgrew its space, and opened its doors in March 2019 on 151 Lagoon Pond Rd. in Vineyard Haven — a short walk from the ferry terminal.
The 19th-century building commands a grassy hill overlooking ocean, lagoon, and a bustling town. The entrance is in the back.
Footsteps echo off the museum’s sleek hardwood floors and freshly painted white walls. There’s a rotating art exhibition just behind the reception desk, which is to your right when you walk in. The current exhibit, “Lost and Found” displayed now through June 8, includes paintings, acrylics, and photographs telling the stories of the building’s many chapters. There’s a gift shop across the hall with books, art, posters, museum apparel, cards, and more.
“History Highlights” screens in a small orientation theater, giving visitors an overview of Island history. The room sits across from another small “What was on this site?” exhibit, the Johnston/Conrad Family Gallery, that displays artifacts and archeological finds from the site’s renovation and construction periods. A larger room abuts these two smaller outcoves, the Aileen and Brian Roberts Gallery, and its entrance sign reads “One Island, Many Stories.” The installation offers a thematic introduction to the Island, including fishing, voyaging, escaping, belonging, farming, and creating.
The Fishing exhibit features the Island’s “essential ingredients” — fish, whales, and shellfish. These three resources fueled, and fuel, the Island’s economy, as well as its diet. The Voyaging exhibit displays the Vineyard’s connection to the rest of the world. Did you know Edgartown was an official port of entry for inbound vessels coming from overseas? And Vineyard Haven was a stopover for sailors in the coastal trade? The Escaping exhibit tells the story of an Island, five miles from “mainland America,” where people could retreat. Religious pilgrims came to Oak Bluffs for “camp meetings” around 1835, followed by tourists in the early 1900s. The Belonging exhibit refers to the groups of people who have found home on the Vineyard. Wampanog, Portugese, and African American people settled on the Island, as did the deaf community in Chilmark. Just as important as living off the sea, the Farming exhibit features the Island tradition of living off the land. Islanders produced and exported wool, milk, and cranberries that sustained family livelihoods in the early part of the 19th century. Creating is the final display, which showcases the Island’s robust art industry. Field Gallery art is displayed, as is a “Jaws” original storyboard by illustrator Joe Alves.
After the Aileen and Brian Roberts Gallery, flashes of red, red, and white will catch your eye. Located on the upper level of the Linneman Pavilion is the first-order Fresnel lens, which was first installed in the Gay Head Lighthouse in 1854. The lens spans two floors, and is displayed “like a suspended jewel,” according to the museum website. Surrounding the lens, an exhibit explores lighthouses around the Island with an interactive touch-screen installation.
A cafe is also located on the upper level of the Linneman Pavilion. The menu changes every two days, and features a hot app, a soup, side, and salad by Buckley Catering in Oak Bluffs. A side door opens to the cafe, so visitors can utilize the cafe space without paying museum admission.
Industrial stairs lead down to the “Hands on History” exhibit, a kids’ space that touches on the same topics as the rest of the museum, but on a “kid scale.” The space is interactive, and features a climb-in boat, a sea captain’s cabin, a fishing shack, and a “make an Island meal” station with take-home recipe cards.
The Dorothy Hall exhibit space is opening soon, and will be located behind the main building. It will be home to some of the larger objects in the museum’s collection, including whaling and fishing vessels, the Mayhew peddler’s cart, a Hawaiian canoe, surfboards, kayaks, and more.
The museum is a tribute to centuries of Vineyard history. It is a keeper of Island culture and an interactive place of education and discovery for all ages.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm, with extended hours until 8 pm on Tuesdays. These hours will continue through May 24. From May 25 to Oct. 14, the museum will be open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm, with extended hours Tuesday until 8 pm. Admission is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $5 for children ages 6 to 17. Children under 6 and members are admitted free.