Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 9 • June 26-July 2, 2008
now in our 38th season

Telling Dramatic Tales of Island Wrecks & Rescues

by Will McGuinness

James C. Lansing said the United States Coast Guard is unlike any other service organization.  So, after high school, he put off college and spurned his local New Jersey steel mill in favor of open water and four years of adventure on water he grew up to love.  Most officers drill their green recruits to test their reactions to authority.  True to its nature, Lansing found the Guard did not ask him and his contemporaries for declarative statements of allegiance and devotion but demanded he stand in his underpants with a pillowcase pulled over his head, asking a question in melody: “Oh say can you see…”

Lansing complied with the tradition in 1978.  Now, as curator of Nantucket’s newly renovated and restored Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum, he takes the centuries-long tradition of Nantucket Lifesaving just as seriously, from it’s volunteer roots in the Massachusetts Humane Society to professional rescuers of the United States Lifesaving Service and today’s men and women of the island’s enlisted United States Coast Guard population.

Jeremy Slavitz, Director of Education and Interpretation for Egan Maritime’s exhibitions and programs at the Coffin School and at the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, said the romantic part of the story is the “Age of Sail” and the end of “The Age of Sail.”  However, he said, “The traditions  developed by the lifesaving service are still carried out today by the men and women stationed here on island, and this gave us an opportunity to take a look at the day-to-day operations of the island’s Coast Guard station.”  These impressions are shared in photos as the new museum’s changing exhibition for 2008.

From its revamped home at 158 Polpis Road, Jean Grimmer, Executive Director of the Egan Maritime Institute hopes the largely green, $3 million renovation will clarify and expand upon the storyline of local historic shipwrecks and their rescues.  She said three focus groups consisting of employees, members of the original museum, and the Nantucket general public, respectively, helped her and others to improve upon key areas of the museum.  Grimmer said the group of Nantucket citizens without ties to the museum helped to bring fresh eyes to the building’s operations and the presentation of exhibits.

The Breeches Buoy is just one of many devices used in rescues at sea.
“A lot of people say, ‘That museum, I’ve been there, done that,’” Grimmer said. “We wanted a reason to bring people back every year and say to them that there is something new for them to see.”

She said travelling exhibits sometimes match the tone of the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum.  The new space allows for the hosting of them and the telling of a slightly different story.

The narrative of shipwrecks is often a somber one, with many stories of those who were not rescued.  The island’s roofwalks can embody a sense of apprehension of wives pacing and waiting.  However, Lansing said underlying feelings of hope can be felt throughout the museum.

“The emphasis of the museum is not the death but the saving instead,” he said, while acknowledging that safe routes through the treacherous Nantucket Schoals was never guaranteed, as illustrated by the more than 700 wrecks that occurred in the dangerous waters around the island.

For Nantucket lifesavers, pushing off from the beach for a rescue was mandatory; coming back was not.  But Lansing said the weight of death does not exist in the museum, even for its adult visitors.

Slavitz said the story is not a tragic one.

“It’s about people going above and beyond,” he said.  Slavitz added stories of heroism and courage are rebounding in a post-9/11 world.

“What we find,” Slavitz said, “is that these guys are incredibly well-known for what they did.  Lifesaving services was one of the best-known services in the federal government.

“We’re talking about shipwrecks occurring, but the fact that these are individuals who were incredibly successful at saving these lives,” he said. “ They were out there trying to avert tragedy.”

Grimmer said the renovation allows for the museum to preserve this story as completely as possible and, she added, conservation was a main component in the project.  She said not only was money raised for building, but serious investments were also made in getting pieces of the permanent collection properly conserved.  Grimmer added that the small details that preserve an object’s sense of history instead of stripping it away reinforce its authenticity.

It is a notion she applies to the museum as a whole.

“The building committee has fussed over every little detail from color to style and everything in between.  It all feels really comfortable; it feels as if everything belongs together.”

She said the building should not interfere with the visitor’s experience but heighten it instead.  Walking into a gleaming building of stainless steel surfaces and white walls wouldn’t do the artifacts justice.  Rather, she said the new building has an integrity that visitors will notice and appreciate.  She credits this to the project’s building committee and trustees who ensured the building matched the original storyline of the museum.

“We didn’t want people to think they were walking into a bowling alley with bright, shiny floors,” she said. “We wanted to make sure it felt like a boathouse.”

Slavitz added the aim was for all guests, from one-time to frequent visitors, to walk into the building feeling the history of island’s lifesavers.  One focus, he said was maintaining favorite artifacts from the old museum while adding new aspects to the overall experience.

Robert Mooney, museum board member and one of its founders, shows fellow members of the
Class of 1948 the new Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum

“We didn’t want people to come in and say, ‘Where did my lifesaving museum go?’” he said. “We are holding in trust not only the objects within our collection but pieces of history that are important to individuals.  This is the story not of a bunch of heroic guys.  This could be the story of a grandfather, a great-grandfather.  We wanted to maintain that feel, and I think we were pretty successful.”

Though another $500,000 is still to be raised for Grimmer and the Egan Maritime Institute to reach their goals, she remains optimistic.

“It’s always a challenge raising money,” she said laughing, “but it’s a win-win situation.

“If you have a great project that has a need, that has a worthy place within the community, people who invest in that project feel really good about their investment, and we feel really good that they invested.”

She added, “When we began, people thought it was a really big step to take; but now as we’re coming towards the finishing line, I think it’s going to be successful.”

The newly renovated and restored Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum will re-open to the public this Wednesday, July 2 from 10 am to 4 pm.  Fee for admission is just $5 for adults and $3 for students. The museum will be open through mid-October.

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