The NHA’s “Other Museum” -November/December 2011
The Bartholomew Gosnold Storage Facility
by: Benjamin Simons
photography by: Jim Powers
The Nantucket Historical Association was founded in 1894 by concerned citizens with the express purpose of making "an active search for all sorts of relics ... before it is too late and these valuable mementos are carried away from the island as trophies, or by progressive housewives 'cast as rubbish to the void'." In 2011, 117 years later, the NHA cares for and protects some 20,000 "relics" of Nantucket's past, along with 600 linear feet of manuscript material, 60,000 historic photographs, and many other priceless icons of Nantucket's history. Some 2,000 (or 10 percent) of these items are on display at the Whaling Museum and in key historic properties, which makes the percentage of Nantucket items on display more than double the national average for museums (5 percent or less).
The remaining artifacts are housed in what has been termed "the other museum," a climate-controlled storage facility on Bartlett Road known as the Bartholomew Gosnold Storage Facility.
Named for English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who is credited with first sighting Nantucket in 1602 from the bark Virginia as he "came in sight of the white cliffs, at the east end of Nantucket, now called Sankota Head," the Gosnold Center was built in 1994 to house the NHA's collections in a professional museum environment. Long in advance of plans to build a new museum center (opened in 2005), the NHA board made it a priority to first take care of the collections in a custom-designed facility that would provide temperature and humidity control, security and space. Here, collections are catalogued and organized according to typology, new acquisitions are processed, exhibitions are planned, photography and conservation are undertaken, volunteers and experts conduct research and study, and tours are given to the public. The collection of some 800 paintings, 700 prints and drawings, 200 baskets, 1,050 articles of scrimshaw, 550 whaling tools, 110 samplers and pictorial needlework and 1,000 items of furniture has been digitally recorded and is viewable on the NHA website, http://www.nha.org Also,. NHA curators conduct regular behind-the-scenes tours and welcome visits, by appointment.
Like the island's first 19th-century museum in the Nantucket Atheneum, and like many private island museums since, the NHA's own first museum was a true "cabinet of curiosities," located in the "rooms" of the Fair Street Museum – a structure built in 1904 as one of the country's first poured-concrete fireproof buildings. The hodgepodge of Nantucket memorabilia, from paintings to whalebones, from potty chairs to spinning wheels, was on exhibit in a classic Victorian display. The Gosnold Center has a good deal of the flavor of a cabinet of curiosities in the sense that its collections are connected through the all-important concept of the NHA's collecting mission: everything of importance that is "Nantucket-related."
This means that silk vests, coverlets and petticoats are on neighboring shelves with furniture, South Pacific material and flags. Whalecraft rest next to furniture, business signs next to giant clam shells. The rich cornucopia of Nantucket history awaits the visitor with bewildering variety. The main difference, however, from such cabinets of old, is that these shelves are superbly ordered by category, item-level catalogued, photographed and searchable in powerful databases whose contents are available online wherever you might be in the world. You can be sitting on a beach in Thailand (or Tuckernuck) doing a search on the NHA's databases for a petticoat your grandparents donated 100 years ago. Not only will the image appear, you will learn the item's donor information, exhibition history and other pertinent details.
One of the wonderful, and largely untold, stories of these collections is that all of this rich gathering of information, background and assessment has been the work of several generations of volunteers working directly with the NHA professional staff. For a sleepy storage facility in the countryside, the Gosnold Center is an extremely active place, often hosting groups and individuals from furniture specialists to textile researchers to scrimshaw experts. Specific areas of the collections receive intense focus in turn: sometimes as a result of exhibit-preparation, sometimes from the interest of volunteer specialists, sometimes as a result of research visits from professional historians and curators, and always as an ongoing aspect of the curatorial department's function.
For instance, in preparation for the 2007 "Nantucket Art Colony" exhibition, the entire collection of paintings, prints and related artifacts was photographed and catalogued. The same was true for related material for "Sconset: 02564" (2008), "Sometimes Think of Me: Notable Nantucket Women through the Centuries" (2010), "Nantucket's Cabinet of Curiosities: A to Z" (now on display in the Peter Foulger Gallery), and many dozens of exhibitions in the past. Major cataloguing efforts also took place in the lead-up to the opening of the new museum center in 2005, with some 8,000 items newly-catalogued, photographed and updated in the databases.
Major volunteer cataloguing efforts of note in recent times have included the Scrimshaw and Whalecraft Collection, inventoried and described with the intensive assistance of Robert and Nina Hellman; the Nantucket Samplers and Textiles Collection, catalogued by Susan Boardman, Caroline Ellis, Elizabeth Gilbert and several other accomplished needlewomen; the Lighting Devices Collection, updated with the help of Joseph Arvay and Chuck Leib; and Copper Lithograph Plates from The Inquirer and Mirror, catalogued by Eileen McGrath, Francis Pease, Robert Young, Lucy Dillon and Kevin Kuester. The list goes on and on. Curatorial staff and interns have also played an important role, transcribing the contents of the NHA's early accession books and entering them in searchable databases. It's fair to say that for over a century the efforts of volunteers and professionals have processed the resources that are now available at the touch of a keystroke. Those generations of workers have created the great tide of accessibility to the NHA collections that we now all enjoy, and that many much larger institutions look upon with admiration in comparison with their own.
Those who participate in tours of the Gosnold Center have their individual experience of surprise and discovery while walking through the rows of shelving, or popping into the scrimshaw room, or poking through an entire rack of paintings. Here are articles from the early exchanges of Nantucket whalers with the peoples of the Pacific Islands: adzes from the Cook
Islands, shark-tooth thrusting weapons from Kiribati, Pandanus-fruit-shaped Fijian throwing clubs and a neck rest from western New Guinea.
If silver is your interest, you can explore the work of colonial silversmiths on Nantucket: porringers, spoons and other items made by the likes of Benjamin Bunker, John Jackson, Samuel Barrett and others. A shelf holds the by-products of whales and other marine mammals from the 19th century: spermaceti candles, sperm oil, porpoise oil, shark oil, seal oil, etc.: articles that are currently on display in the "Nantucket's Cabinet of Curiosities: A to Z" exhibition, an example of how interesting material often appears in changing exhibitions. Individual curiosities abound as well: a Main Street cobblestone "tamper" laden with lead, the figurehead of a Scotsman or "Highlander" from a 19th-century vessel, architectural fragments from the Oldest House and other early structures. Civil War mementos include swords, a checkerboard from the infamous Libby Prison, and minié balls brought back by Nantucket veterans. The show-stopper, however, may be the large blue tub that contains a mysterious substance: spermaceti oil from the headcase of the whale that washed ashore in 1998 in Sconset, the bones of which are now the centerpiece of the Whaling Museum.
As the repository for the gifts of generations of Nantucketers, their descendants and other donors, the NHA collections at the Whaling Museum, its historic properties, the library on Fair Street, and the Bartholomew Gosnold Center really function as the "island's attic." That is why the NHA is so committed to making these collections accessible to the public. As a museum accredited by the American Association of Museums, we are proud to have 10 percent of the collections currently on display, and 100 percent of them accessible through tours, exhibitions, publications and the powerful free online databases, our hope is to enhance the public's ability to encounter and enjoy this incredible legacy.
Next year (2012) we have exciting plans to place even more of the collections on display in the large brick candle factory that forms part of the museum – using the collections in a permanent installation that will illustrate the historic relevance of island life. O
For information on tours, upcoming events, and to access the online databases,
Benjamin Simons is the Nantucket Historical Association's Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator.