Water World -August 2011

by: Lindsay Pykosz

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Today, when Nantucket visitors or year-round residents visit the MARIA MITCHELL AQUARIUM at 28 Washington Street, they can participate in a variety of programs and activities: from viewing a collection of the island’s own sea creatures, getting their hands wet in the popular “touch tank” or taking part in the organization’s annual “naming contest,” where visitors can submit their own name for an animal at the aquarium.

Kids at the aquarium’s outside touch-tank

This museum site (one of seven overseen by the Maria Mitchell Association) has become a favorite destination for many since it first opened in 1945. Since its inception, the aquarium has changed locations and experienced some renovations, but has always opened its doors each summer.

“When they opened the Natural Science Museum, they had the aquarium in 1945, and in the 1960s it took off even more,” said Jascin Leonardo Finger, curator of the MMA’s Mitchell House. “It was spearheaded by Clint Andrews and a few other people helped out, and it lived in a number of different places for a while. It lived at least one summer on the Nantucket Lightship and then kind of came back up to the Hinchman House and then finally Jane Merrill, our former president, gave the current building to the association in 1986.”

But within the next two to four years, the MMA aquarium will undergo its biggest change yet, as the organization has teamed up with Nantucket Islands Land Bank to transform the portion of Washington Street leading into the downtown district into a new natural-science museum and aquarium complex and open public access to the water.

The process began in the winter of 2010, said MMA executive director Janet Schulte, and has been taking shape ever since. “It all began with us sharing our master plan for the Vestal Street campus in the winter of 2010 with different island organizations looking for collaborations,” said Schulte.

“The Land Bank was one of those organizations and came back to us with an idea for a land swap, to swap what’s currently at 28 Washington Street for lots 33 and 31. This essentially doubled the land we had and gave us the opportunity to create a science center to encompass our hands-on learning approach.” That approach has been a constant theme since the Maria Mitchell Association was founded in 1902 to preserve the legacy of Nantucket native, astronomer, naturalist, librarian and educator Maria Mitchell. After Mitchell discovered a comet in 1847 from the roof of Pacific Bank, she garnered many awards and much recognition, and eventually became the first American professor of astronomy at Vassar College. Her family – her cousins in particular – and former students from Vassar acquired her family’s home from the estate of Mitchell’s aunt in 1902 after she died and opened the museum in 1903.

According to Finger, all departments started within the Mitchell House, with the first branch formed in 1908 with the completion of the Vestal Street Observatory to house Mitchell’s Alvan Clark telescope. Mitchell always believed in the “learning by doing” approach, which is something Finger and Schulte said they have been continuing to this day.

The MMA mission clearly states that the organization strives for “promotion of the legacy of Maria Mitchell and exploration, education and enjoyment of Nantucket’s land, waters and skies beyond. In fulfilling our mission, we recognize the historic persona of Maria Mitchell, the foremost American woman scientist and educator of the 19th century, and her potential impact on contemporary thought by passing on her legacy of intellectual curiosity, respect for and love of nature, learning by doing, and the ideal of individualism.”

Schulte said this mission will carry through to the new natural-science complex, and will even be expanded upon with a series of new programs the MMA hopes to implement when the new aquarium and museum opens in 2015.

“We know there will be a touch tank, at least one, maybe two big tanks,” Schulte said. “We’re also going to have exhibits on the habitats of Nantucket. We’re going to have a room about migration because we think that’s a persistent theme, and something that encompasses birds, fish and animals. We’ll cover ornithology, marine biology, celestial navigation. We’ll be tying together the notion that science isn’t as divided as we often make it out to be and the program will really be hands-on.”

Schulte added that the Nantucket Land Council has also helped design an exterior exhibit about wet- land plants, but the big game-changer will be the installation of a planetarium. Visitors will be able to take a tour of the universe, visit the moons of Jupiter and learn more about worlds millions of light-years away, all from the comfort of seats just a stone’s throw from Nantucket Harbor.

In addition, the new aquarium will be open almost year-round, as opposed to the current facility, which opens in early June, with the last program scheduled for Friday, Aug. 26.

“I think it strengthens our ability to deliver the mission of hands-on education through teaching and learning, and it will certainly allow us in the off-season to spread field trips out and use the site for field trips,” Schulte said. “In December and January, we will probably close for necessary maintenance, but our real vision that we have is that this science center is the portal for the natural world of Nantucket. The exhibit is Nantucket.”

Schulte stressed that the Maria Mitchell Association will be collaborating with other organizations in order for people to experience what they have to offer, and that the idea for this new museum began because of a collaboration. It is these partnerships that will be essential and important for the growth of the new museum.

“Join our programs, go on Trustees of Reservations programs, go on Fish and Wildlife tours, see Nantucket’s trees, conservation properties or go to the observatory,” Schulte said. “We’re going to portal you right into that experience. If you’ve already seen that stuff, you can come visit us again, get organized and oriented to what you saw. We wanted everyone to know what we’re doing and we were transparent in our collaboration. If we kept it a secret, no one would know. ‘Collaboration’ is in our mission statement and has been essential in our planning.”

Currently, the MMA is working hard to raise $10 million to create the new museum complex. It’s an ambitious undertaking that Schulte said is “coming along pretty well.” The aquarium will have to vacate its current location at 28 Washington Street by 2014, and the Maria Mitchell Association hopes to have the new complex open sometime in 2015, pending fundraising and permitting.

Schulte said the project has received a very positive response from the community thus far, and she finds it difficult to get through Stop & Shop to buy a tomato these days, as people are constantly talking to her about its status.

Both she and Finger said they are happy that the new location is so close to the current one – it’s right across the street – and that, most importantly, it will still be near the water, something that is essential for such a museum.

“We’re very happy,” Finger said. “It’s going to be such a fantastic tool, not just for visitors, but for year-round Nantucketers as well and for school-children. It’s here for the islanders.”

Agreeing, Schulte added, “We want to be near the water and the legacy of that spot given by Jane Merrill’s work and people who re-did the aquarium 10 years ago. It’s important to use, to keep that connection. We’re building on the legacy of Clint Andrews, Jane Merrill and all those other people who came up with the idea of a downtown aquarium that will enhance our visibility, our business model and how we work.”

For more information about the Maria Mitchell Aquarium, Natural Science Museum and other programs and activities, visit http://www.mmo.org 

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