Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 37 Issue 15 • August 2 - 8, 2007 now in our 37th season

Activities for Families:
Museums Telling the Stories

by Zoë Kirsch

In spite of this island’s not so hefty size, it contains enough stories to fill the ocean itself (figuratively of course): everyday life stories, out of the ordinary stories, and simply extraordinary stories.  Oftentimes it’s easy to overlook just how much history there is beneath the island’s chic exterior.  While the gorgeous beaches and glistening waters certainly are fun, it is these stories that offer true insight to the island’s character.  Nantucket’s many unique museums and historical sites provide you with the valuable opportunity to delve right into Nantucket times gone by.

The Whaling Museum at 15 Broad Street provides an in-depth look at the industry which shaped the island’s past.  Particularly for families, this museum is the perfect place to start; it makes an extra effort in the name of kid-friendliness.  The guides are especially engaging, animated, and more than willing to answer questions and share stories about adventure on the high seas.  Special museum guide booklets for children are provided (these include fun activities and games for children).  And Hands on History is offered for all young visitors between the ages of five and twelve from 1:00 to 4:00 PM in the Discovery Room.  The program is lead by a competent staff that teaches kids artsy, Nantucket history-related projects like making cornhusk dolls and scrimshaw.  Furthermore, the Whaling Museum periodically presents visual programs and conducts tours of its incredible exhibits (including an actual whale skeleton and whaling boat, vast collection of harpoons, restored candle-making factory, and impressive portraits of whaling ship captains, painted by famous artists like John Singleton Copley).  Folksy music plays in the background, and the museum shop sells old-fashioned goodies like imitation scrimshaw and paper masks.  What better way to learn about an exciting piece of Nantucket history than to be surrounded by it?  

Another way to steep yourself in the island’s past is to visit any one of the Nantucket Historical Association’s (NHA) sites.  The best way to do this is to choose a rainy day and several of these to visit (the Historical Sites include: The Oldest House, the Old Mill, The Hadwen House, The Old Gaol, the Quaker Meetinghouse, and the Hosecart House).  From Monday to Saturday they’re open from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM and on Sunday they’re open from noon to 5:00 PM.  The easiest way to visit is to purchase a pass that allows individuals to visit each site once.  Passes are $6 for adults and $3 for ages 6 to 17 (passes that include the Whaling Museum cost slightly more).  After purchase of a pass, the individual can visit each site once.  It’s best to call and confirm which sites will be open at 508-228-1894.

One of these NHA sites is The Oldest House and Historic Garden, located at 16 Sunset Hill.  A tour of this oldest standing home is quite the experience. Built in 1686, the Oldest House (trap door and all) will transport you back to the 17th century as you learn about Quaker life on Nantucket.  Find out where the saying, “dead as a doornail” comes from, hear the drama that brought Jethro Coffin and Mary Gardner together in marriage, and discover exactly why the house’s doors are just five-foot-four-inches high.  The Garden is expressive of history in a similar fashion as a painting is of the time that it was painted.  Pat Butler, an NHA Guide, describes the plots of practical herbs, flowers, and vegetables as   “very simple, but characteristic of the kind of plants they would have grown.  This is a typical garden of the late 17th century.”  A quaint garden shed sits in the enclosure and, framed by flora of all kinds, it’s the ideal backdrop for a family photo.  What’s more, the field surrounding the Oldest House is a great place for a picnic. 

A trip to The Old Mill at 50 Prospect Street is another informative outing for the whole family.  Blake Sylvia, islander and NHA Guide, explains what about the mill makes it so appealing to children.  “The look and the vanes of the mill,” he says after a moment’s thought.  “Essentially, they love when it’s moving.”  For the most exciting experience, visit this spot on a windy day.  The 280-year-old mill definitely has a story of its own.  A misunderstood inventor who fought all odds to accomplish his dream built this miraculous feat of engineering.  At The Mill you’ll learn how the 30,000-pound stones are manipulated to crush corn into meal, why the East Mill is the last one standing, and where the phrase “putting your nose to the grindstone” comes from.  A picnic table is located right next to the landmark, so you can bring sandwiches, have some lunch and learn some history!

Yet another historical site families can visit is The Hadwen House at 96 Main Street.  Easily accessible from Town, this grand structure has quite a presence on Main Street.  You’ve probably noticed the house before, but its historical significance is not as well-known.  The story behind the columned building, as you’ll learn, is that it was originally the home of a “self made man,” the philanthropist William Hadwen.  Unmistakably, this is no Quaker home, and compared to the Oldest House it seems extravagant.  Thus, the difference between the two locations demonstrates the difference in lifestyles pre-whaling and during the whaling era.  On the guided tour you’ll have the chance to walk through the house and see objects from the 19th century, everything from china plates to beaver hats.  Children can learn about other aspects of life during the whaling age and the origin of the phrase, “sleep tight, but don’t let the bed bugs bite.”  Kids don’t have any room to be rowdy here!  So this excursion is best suited for ages twelve and older.      

The Old Gaol at 15 Vestal Street is a feast for the imagination.  Just walk into one of the rooms and prepare to be spooked!  One story tells of a boy who managed to climb up the Gaol’s chimney to escape—check out that chimney for yourself!  Frankly, the jail, with its barred, tiny windows and dark, dark rooms, is fun because it’s downright creepy!

The Quaker Meeting House can be found at number 10 Pine Street.  Beginning in the 1700s, Quakerism had a tremendous influence on Nantucket life.  Learn more about this aspect of Nantucket history by attending an interpretive lecture about Nantucket Quakers (held at 2:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays) at the meetinghouse!

The Hose Cart House at 8 Gardner Street is ideal for all ages.  On top of having several hose carts, it has a photo gallery of historic fires, and kids will really enjoy this aspect.

A different site that is well worth seeing with the family is the Mitchell House, birthplace and home of Maria Mitchell.  It’s open from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM every day of the week, excluding Sundays and Mondays and is located at 1 Vestal Street.  Here you’ll find not only a house from the 19th century that is still in prime condition, but also the room where Maria Mitchell was born.  Furthermore, Maria Mitchell’s desk and her numerous certificates are on display.  You’ll also get the chance to learn Maria Mitchell’s incredible story.  Her accomplishments are astounding and extensive.  Maria Mitchell was the country’s first female astronomer, the first librarian at Nantucket’s Atheneum at age eighteen, the first female professor at Vassar College, and the first woman to be elected into the College of Arts and Science.  Moreover, she started her own school for children when she was just seventeen years old, lead the Atheneum forward after the devastating Fire of 1846, discovered a comet at twenty-nine, and became President of the American Association for the Advancement of Women.  The leading female scientist of her times, Mitchell refused to fit into the constricting mold of the day.  She was known to have hated needlework, and furthermore stated, ”Women shouldn’t view the world through the eye of a needle.”  Just having the opportunity to visit the place where such a revolutionary woman lived is inspiring.  Additionally, the Mitchell House has lots to interest kids.  They can see 19th century children’s toys, including a kaleidoscope, dollhouse, and rocking horse-like contraption made out of a turtle shell.  This is a great location to learn about an extraordinary person and her time.

The Coffin School Museum at 4 Winter Street is always a wonderful place to visit, and at the moment it is especially worth seeing.  The Museum is hosting a fun and informative exhibit entitled Gutsy Gals.  The display clearly shows the extent to which the combination of Quakerism and Whaling contributed women’s gaining independence on this island.  This is a great exhibit for all children (it has a special scavenger hunt provided when you walk in the door).  Furthermore, it is particularly inspirational for young girls as it provides details about strong female Nantucketers of years past.  Learn about the women who accompanied their husbands on whaling voyages, Maria Mitchell (see her actual telescope), and Madaket Millie.  The guides here also have stories of their own to share.  For example, one guide told me about her experiences with Madaket Millie, and, with a fond smile, remembered how Millie used to scare the pants off of island kids.  Gutsy Gals is a wonderful opportunity to take a look into the lives of tough women who were ages ahead of their time.

Finally, the Atheneum Library offers an impressive collection of Nantucket historical art.  Scrimshaw, paintings, model boats, woodcarvings, and prints adorn the walls.  The art sits humbly in the background, but upon further investigation it can be said that this art holds more than meets the eye.  For example, one subdued painting from 1851 of a man sitting in a chair turns out to be of the “last man of Indian descent” on the island.  From reading the caption one can gather that many native people died in 1763 of a plague, a part of Nantucket history that shouldn’t be overlooked.  Like this painting, the art in the Atheneum tells a story.     

A museum is defined as “a building or place where works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed.”  The word “permanent” certainly deserves emphasis in that definition.  Because like the objects that remain from their lives, the whalers, settlers, engineers, businesspeople, inmates, Quakers, firemen, scientists, artists, and the other men and women of Nantucket’s past are in a sense, very permanent.  Simply put, they made Nantucket what it is today.  And thanks to this island’s museums and the people who keep those museums running, their legacy won’t be forgotten.

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