The newly opened Martha’s Vineyard Museum sits on a bluff with stunning views of Vineyard Haven harbor. It’s a renovated structure with an interesting past.
“The original property was commissioned to be built as a marine hospital by the Coast Guard in 1895, and it operated as a marine hospital for a number of years,” said Katy Fuller, the Museum’s Director of Operations. “And then once the Cape Cod Canal got built, it wasn’t as necessary and needed any more. So it dwindled in use, and by the 60s, the Coast Guard sold it. It went through a number of owners for a few years until the St. Pierre family purchased it and operated it first as a sleep-away camp in the summer for island kids, and then later as just a day camp.”
Eventually, the original building fell into disrepair and was mostly hidden from view and forgotten.
“There was shrubbery, arbor vitae’s. Trees had just grown up in front of the terrace. No one knew it was here,” Fuller said.
When the property came on the market in 2011, the Museum bought it, having outgrown its previous home in Edgartown. One of the first tasks was to remove all the overgrowth and restore the site to its original appearance. The design team wanted to save as much of the old building’s components as possible, and use whatever they could in the renovation.
The new space is almost three times the size of the Edgartown location. One of the first exhibits is in the Community Gallery.
“We’re starting with this exhibit called ‘Lost and Found’, which is all images, artwork of the building before we did any renovations to it. Although we bought the property in 2011, we didn’t actually do any construction to it until 2017," said Fuller.
The main exhibit space is called ‘One Island – Many Stories’. It tells the stories of each town on the Vineyard, and features kiosks where visitors can listen to oral histories of Martha’s Vineyard residents.
A newly built glass pavilion is flooded with natural light, and dominated by an enormous Fresnel lens – the original 1856 lens from the Gay Head Lighthouse.
“We took it apart in Edgartown in May, and it got restored and put back together here in October. She’s a stunner,” said Fuller.
Downstairs is an area called ‘Hands on History’, an interactive play space for kids. It includes a recreation of a berth on a whaling ship, modeled on the diary recollections of Laura Jernegan.
“She was a young girl who went on a whaling voyage with her parents – Jared Jernegan was her Dad, and he was the whaling captain. And we have her journal that she kept as a young child, so that’s been turned into a whole interactive screen that the kids can look into, and so this is designed to be what her quarters would have been like on that whaling journey,” said Fuller.
Another gallery on the main floor celebrates the history of music on the island, with old posters promoting concerts, and performances at long-defunct Vineyard coffeehouses. And the collection keeps growing, as more and more people hear about it and offer items from their personal archives
Behind the main building, a new structure houses all the vehicles, boats, and other large objects in the Museum’s collection. In the old space in Edgartown, many of those items were kept in a small enclosure called the ‘carriage shed’.
“Basically, visitors could just walk in, look at it all. There was no interpretation, people didn’t know what they were looking at. And this allows people to walk through it – we have stuff suspended from the ceiling, there’s a lot more artifacts in there,” said Fuller.
After seven years of planning, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum now has enough space to adequately showcase the island’s rich and varied history … and it breathes new life into a once-neglected structure with a fascinating past of its own.
“You could tell the history – you could feel the memories on the walls. I think we definitely did as much as could to protect it,” said Fuller.