On Exhibit -July 2012
by: Lindsay Pykosz
After a nine-month slumber, the island has embraced summer’s splendor, with warmer temperatures, greener grass and crowds of people here to enjoy its classic architecture and special charms. While many flock to Nantucket for its pristine beaches and unspoiled open spaces, there are plenty of exhibits currently on display at museums around the island that offer a glimpse into its rich and extensive history.
NANTUCKET HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION
At the peak of the whaling era, Nantucket was not only the focal point of the whaling industry, but the place where so many candles for the world were made. Today, that history lives on in the Nantucket Historical Association’s Hadwen & Barney Oil & Candle Factory, an integral part of its Whaling Museum, and the focal point of the NHA’s summer 2012 exhibit that will provide an inside look at how the factory worked and how the island operated during the 1800s.
The candle factory was built immediately following the Great Fire of 1846 and close to the end of the island’s whaling heyday, leading businessmen William Hadwen and Nathaniel Barney to purchase the building and continue to operate it as a candle factory until whaling on the island essentially came to an end in the 1860s.
When the Whaling Museum was renovated and expanded in 2005, the public was asking for further explanation about the purpose of the factory, said Ben Simons, the NHA’s Robyn & John Davis chief curator. As a result, the author and illustrator team of Mark and Gerald Foster have created a birds-eye view of the facility and refining process, detailed illustrations of how the oil lever – or beam press – worked, and the candle-making process in general, each of which will serve as centerpieces of the exhibit.
Simons said that most of the activity took place on the second floor, which will house different pictures and artifacts along the walls and rafters that have been in storage until now. With 10 percent of the museum’s collection currently on display – twice the national average for museums – Simons said the NHA wanted to bring even more out for the public to enjoy.
“This is Nantucket’s heritage. That’s really been an important idea we’ve been focusing on, but how do we solve that with the spaces we have available?” he asked. “We decided to focus on the whole building with the oil factory interpretation downstairs, and bring people upstairs to see a display about island life and what was happening on the island when the factories were making money and touch on the major themes of Nantucket history.”
The second floor of the exhibit is broken into themes – “Making a Living,” “Cycles of History” and “Artists Colony” – that coincide with groups of artifacts. Lining the walls are various historic business signs and antique pieces, and two replica American flags – one with 30 stars from 1849 when Hadwen and Barney purchased the building, and the other with 44 stars from 1894 when the NHA was founded – as well as a “homeward bound” replica flag that draws attention to the ceiling and remaining portions of the building.
In the “Cycles of History” section, the highs and lows of Nantucket history will be highlighted, and to coincide with the reopening of the Fire Hose Cart House at 8 Gardner St. that underwent renovations this winter, the main focus will be on the Great Fire. On display will be a bank-vault door that survived the fire and will take visitors back to that frightful day.
Past the “Artists Colony” section is a large hand-made map of Nantucket by Mary Emery that includes other ports that had meaning to Nantucketers in different parts of the world.
The former Island Home Gallery has been turned into the Nantucket Corner, a relaxing space that allows visitors to learn about the 22 historic properties the NHA manages, examine logbooks, maps and treasures from its historic collection, as well as read five digitized journals, view hundreds of images and browse the organization’s new simplified search engine: all on touch-screen computers.
“We wanted to give people a gateway to all of these things that we offer with the style of a library lounge setting,” Simons said. “People need to know these important, essential things, and we invite them to come and settle in and read.”
EGAN MARITIME INSTITUTE
For hundreds of years, Nantucket’s three lighthouses – Sankaty Head, Great Point and Brant Point – have stood tall and proud, warning mariners of the shoals and shorelines of this island 30 miles out to sea. In many respects, they were the lifesavers of Nantucket, steering ships clear of the dangerous shoals that threatened them.
But it was the lighthouse-keepers who watched over these structures day and night who arguably were equally as important, and they, along with their families, are being celebrated in the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum’s 2012 exhibit “Guiding Lights: Nantucket’s Lighthouses, Keepers and Their Families,” open through Oct. 8 in the Polpis Road museum’s Monaghan Gallery.
“This exhibit is about being aware of the lives that existed out at the lighthouses, and there really were families and people there and keepers who were tending the lights,” said Lisa McCandless, the museum’s curator. “There’s that, and then there’s so much more to it. It was their everyday life and a lot of hard work.”
The exhibit presents, in succession, the history of each lighthouse beginning with Brant Point. From there, it segues into family stories with photographs from the Nantucket Historical Association, island photographers and the families who shared their stories. In addi- tion, there will be hands-on activities for children. The room will also be divided by red bands, similar to those which encircle Sankaty Light, so people truly feel like they’re on-site at a lighthouse.
McCandless said there was extensive information to sift through, especially with Brant Point alone, which has had nine incarnations, and she knew from the beginning she wanted to include a few stories of shipwreck sightings and prominent families, like Eugene Larsen and his family, who lived in Sconset at Sankaty Light.
Although each visitor will take something different away from the exhibit, McCandless said she hopes each one will learn something new, no matter what their age, and find a new-found appreciation for the men, women and children who lived and worked at the lighthouses that were a crucial part of every ocean-going voyage in the waters around Nantucket.
“Years ago, when mariners were out at sea, they didn’t have GPS or technology,” McCandless said. “They had very rudimentary types of equipment to find their way, and before planes, trains and automobiles, ships were the only way to bring cargo from various places. Since I’ve been the curator, I’ve always tried to pick themes that involve the community, not only in terms of stories they’re giving me related to the theme, but for materials and ideas. This exhibit is exciting and I think it does that.”
NANTUCKET LIGHTSHIP BASKET MUSEUM
For every sketch a whaler made in the 18th century of the life he missed at home, every sailor’s valentine created by a Nantucketer in an exotic place that traveled from port to port on a sailor’s journey, or every lightship basket labored upon over countless hours for a loved one, all were gifts made with passion and affection with another person in mind. As a way to commemorate all of these gifts from the past and present, the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum is devoting its 2012 season-long exhibition to “Gifts from the Heart,” where dozens of stories rich in island history that shaped the woven Nantucket icon will be explored through Oct. 6. Executive director Maryann Wasik said that organizers each season try to come up with a theme that can incorporate both contemporary andantique baskets, as some people prefer one over the other. “There are people that come here that only like antiques, or who only like contemporary, so we want to make sure we satisfy both,” Wasik said. “It’s important that we keep getting the message out that this is an important art form that is very unique to Nantucket. It’s done around the world, but it was started here, it began here. We don’t want people to just think it’s a fancy handbag on somebody’s arm. There’s a rich history that’s unique to this island. It’s an icon for this island.” With 90 percent of the roughly 70 baskets in the exhibit on loan, Wasik said this year’s collection is brand new, and once it wraps up in the fall, some of the baskets may never be seen by the public again. Items on display mark memorable occasions like weddings, birthdays and other events, and similar to exhibits over the past few years, two basket-makers will be featured: Captain Thomas James (1811-1885) and Harry Hilbert (1917-2010).
The background of each man is quite different, with James considered the first person to return from a whaling voyage with baskets he had made while at sea, and Hilbert a man who discovered the art of basket-making in his 50s, and went on to make a second career out of the art.
Baskets on display by the two men include an 11-inch basket with inlay border and carved wooden fish on the top, a six-inch cocktail bag with oak staves, rim and handle, and a sewing basket made by James around 1880 with heart handles, on loan from islander John Sylvia.
Other baskets include a 12-inch decorative piece with heart-shaped staves made by and on loan from Ronald J. Michael, two miniature baskets made by Nap Plank for his daughters, a trick box from Paul and Diane Madden’s collection dating back to the mid-1800s, and well-known basket-maker Jose Reyes’ lunchbox he made for a child who was 6 years old at the time to carry a thermos, sandwich and fruit. In addition, baskets from the museum’s youth weaving program will be on display in their own case.
The museum has been working on expanding its permanent collection, something Wasik said it is slowly accomplishing each year. For its exhibits, museum officials search the island and beyond to find baskets and learn the stories behind each one.
“This gives us an opportunity to bring new baskets in. Every single one has its own personality, so each basket has its own history,” Wasik said. “There’s little things you learn about each one.”