Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 37 Issue 5 • May 24 - 30, 2007
now in our 37th season

New Addition Planned for the
Nantucket Lifesaving Museum

The Egan Maritime Foundation has announce plans to build an addition to the Nantucket Life-Saving Museum at 158 Polpis Road, when the museum closes at the end of the 2007 summer season.  Discussions to expand the physical space for the care and display of the more than 4,000 artifacts began in 2002.  As one advisor put it at the time, “Nantucket’s maritime heritage encompasses far more than the years in which it dominated the whale fishery.  The island has always been intimately tied to the waters surrounding it, and these heroic stories of wreck and rescue illustrate that relationship in dramatic fashion.” 

By the end of the eighteenth century, the rapidly growing American economy was supported by a vast amount of shipping along the East Coast. Hundreds of vessels ranging in size from small coastal fishing sloops to large cargo ships capable of crossing the oceans plied the waters near Nantucket all year round. However, limited navigational tools, near constant fog, and unpredictable weather combined with the treacherous shoals found along the coast conspired to create a deadly hazard to passing ships. During the 18th, 19th, and early-20th centuries, more than 700 vessels were wrecked and hundreds of mariners perished, often in sight of the shore.

For the people living along the Massachusetts coast, including those on Nantucket, shipwrecks were not anonymous events.  The mariners who lost their lives were poignant reminders of the fathers and sons who had set off to sea themselves.  Faced with the tragic human cost of these wrecks, Nantucketers became active participants in America’s developing life-saving efforts, risking their lives again and again so that hundreds of sailors would survive and return to those they loved.

The Nantucket Life-Saving Museum preserves the story of these tragic shipwrecks and the heroic exploits of Nantucketers serving with the Massachusetts Humane Society, the United States Life-Saving Service, and the United States Coast Guard.

In 2003, a design that added a “wart” to the northwest side of the museum was created and received the Historic District Commission’s approval, but lay dormant for the next several years while discussions about affiliating with the Egan Maritime Foundation began and were successfully concluded in January 2004.

The project emerged as a priority in 2005 following the Board of Trustees’ adoption of a strategic plan for the Egan Maritime Foundation.  Acknowledging the strong connection that many islanders’ descendants have with the Life-Saving Museum and recognizing the need to maintain its character, the board enlisted Artes Scribendi—a firm specializing in small, locally oriented institutions—to analyze museum trends that maximize visitor experience.  After receiving feedback from a series of focus groups in the winter of 2005, the storyline of the Life-Saving Museum was refined to highlight the many unique artifacts in the collection.  At that time Neil Parent came back into the picture to design a structure that would be architecturally evocative of the original museum building and the island’s other life-saving stations and would meet the over-all goal of providing a more meaningful experience for visitors.

The new design was approved by the Board of Trustees in the summer of 2006, and the process of seeking approvals by the Town of Nantucket’s regulatory boards began in the fall.  At the end of March 2007, the Museum received final permission when the Conservation Commission approved the plan for an updated septic system.  The way was then clear to distribute design and construction drawings to potential contractors.

The Nantucket Life-Saving Museum hopes to break ground in the fall for the new addition, which will better preserve and interpret this compelling aspect of Nantucket’s maritime heritage. The plan includes:  a new interpretive storyline focusing on three famous shipwrecks, additional galleries for permanent and changing exhibitions, space for educational programs for adults and children, climate controlled environment for the museum’s collection of more than 4,000 artifacts from Nantucket’s life-saving past.

The addition of year-round heating-and-cooling systems will allow the museum to be open later into the fall and by appointment during the winter and early spring months.  The interior spaces and the artifacts therein will continue to illustrate the pageant of this profound aspect of the island’s maritime heritage, exploring both the danger and drama of shipwreck on Nantucket’s treacherous shoals and the lives of the ordinary men and women who willingly gave of themselves to rescue those in danger.

It is hoped that the expanded museum will reopen in July 2008.


The Life-Saving Museum opens for the season On May 5th for weekends (Sat & Sun,  9:30–4:30) and will be open DAILY from May 25th with a Labor Day closing date set (if all goes well with construction schedules)

Nantucket’s most complete events & arts calendar • Established 1970 • © © 2019  Yesterday's Island •