Down to the Sea in Ships -July 2016

by: Lindsay Pykosz

After a nine-month slumber, the island has embraced summer’s splendor, with warmer temperatures, greener grass and crowds of visitors here to enjoy the historic architecture and classic charm. While many flock to Nantucket for its pristine beaches and unspoiled open spaces, there are plenty of exhibits currently on display at museums around the island that offer a glimpse into its rich and extensive history in a variety of different ways.


The Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum on Broad Street is offering visitors a variety of different ways to learn about the island’s history. Those who have visited the museum before may notice some differences immediately after walking through the door this summer.

What was formerly a busy display wall just inside the front door is now a mural of the world with a quote from the Nantucket chapter of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick:” “What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood!”

The wall is designed so that the museum’s lights shine on it in the evenings, making it visible from the street.

The timeline on the first floor of the museum also got a major overhaul because much of the information had become outdated, Robyn and John Davis Chief Curator Michael Harrison said. The first portion, about the founding of the island, is the same, but everything thereafter is brand new.

“We wanted some different objects,” Harrison said. “It was a bit episodic before, and we felt that it didn’t really anchor visitors to anything thematically.”

A variety of new artifacts are tied to prominent Nantucketers. They include a box believed to have belonged to Tristram Coffin, who purchased Nantucket along with other European investors in the mid-1600s; a side chair made by carpenter Jonathan Upham around 1773; a window from Thomas Gardner from a house on Gull Island Lane; a whaleship model; and portraits of 19th-century Nantucketers.

As is the case every summer, the NHA will have several seasonal exhibits open to the public. Its “Stove by a Whale: 20 Men, 3 Boats, 96 Days” exhibition, which opened last spring, will remain open through this season. Its interactive displays, multimedia components and array of historic artifacts in the McCausland Gallery of the Whaling Museum center around the story of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific in 1820. After the ship sank, its 20 crew members spread out into three whaleboats to fend for themselves on the vast Pacific Ocean.

Visitors to the exhibit can follow a path along the floor that stops at various points with dates that correspond to events and situations the crewmembers experienced. Among them were Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy who was 14 at the time; Capt. George Pollard Jr.; and first mate Owen Chase.

On the same floor is a second exhibit called “The Coffin School: A Gift of Education,” which celebrates the history of the Coffin School, founded in 1827 by English Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin to honor his ancestors’ role in settling the island.

The small exhibit in the Mezzanine Gallery features a portrait of Coffin painted by Gilbert Stuart, the journal of Henry Clapp Jr. that he wrote aboard the school’s early American training ship, and student work including a lightship basket and book filled with sewing samples.

13 Broad St. (508) 228-1894


In recent years, Nantucket lightship baskets have become popular 6,000 miles from the island in Japan. Roughly 1,500 people make up the Tokyobased New England Nantucket Basket Association, a group of basket-makers who share a love for the Nantucket icons.

“The Japanese have tremendous respect for tradition,” said Maryann Wasik, executive director of the museum.

This year’s exhibit – “Faraway Islands: Lightship Basket Making on Nantucket & Japan” – features 15 baskets from Japan, from basket-makers like Mika Shiokawa and Etsuko Yashiro.

“We asked for examples of their work and what inspired them about Nantucket baskets,” Wasik said. Many of these baskets are on display next to baskets made in America by artisans like Kathleen Myers.

“It shows the similarities,” Wasik said.

Many of the contemporary baskets on display incorporate Japanese arts, like lacquer ware and Kamakurabori carvings with Nantucket-style basketry. A nest of Nantucket lightship baskets will also be on display.

“We have a gam nest made in 2005 by nine Nantucket basket-makers. One fits inside of the other,” Wasik said. “Each one is able to display their own unique styles.”

As is the case with the Lightship Basket Museum’s exhibit each year, the in-depth stories of two basketmakers will be presented. This year’s chosen two are whaling captain James Wyer and Paul Whitten.

Wyer’s many voyages took him to the waters around Japan. He turned to basket-making in retirement, bringing home many blue ribbons. Whitten’s work was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in the mid-1970s as part of its celebration of American craftsmanship.

“Whitten was a prolific basket-maker,” Wasik said. “One was submitted to the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian. It was accepted and they bought one so now it’s in their permanent collection.”

The exhibit will also feature other pieces of Asian art to provide context, Wasik added. On display are models of buildings from Tokyo’s DisneySea theme park, which includes a replica Cape Cod village.

“We’ve tried to add in here some different pieces of Asian art to add some texture,” she said. “Overall, we’ve told an interesting story about how one tradition is alive and well 6,000 miles apart in two different locations.”

49 Union St. (508) 228-1177.


The Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum’s “Out of the Fog: Remembering the Andrea Doria; Tragedy and Rescue at Sea, commemorates the 60th anniversary of the sinking of the Andrea Doria. The first Italian luxury liner launched after World War II, the ship collided with the Swedish ocean liner Stockholm on a foggy July evening in July 1956 and sank to the bottom of the ocean 45 miles south of Nantucket.

“What we’re focusing on initially is the beauty of the ship,” said Lisa Lazarus, museum director at the Egan Maritime Institute, which runs the museum. “It was Italy’s pride and joy. It was the first ocean liner after World War II that they launched, and it was basically a floating art gallery. All the best architects, artists, anybody you could think of, designers, were employed to create this gem.”

The ship made her debut in New York in 1953. She had three classes, and each class had its own dining room, lounge, ballroom, movie room and its own pool, Lazarus said. There was even air-conditioning throughout the ship, extremely rare in the early 1950s.

“No expense was spared for this ship,” Lazarus said. “They had all the best cutlery and china and everything you can imagine. So we focus on a lot of that to begin with and then we have artifacts, things that were brought up from the bottom of the ocean.”

The night the Andrea Doria sank was the last of the voyage, and the crown jewel of the Italian Line was steaming rapidly toward New York Harbor despite near-zero visibility. The captain, Piero Calamai, had made the voyage 50 times before, often in similar conditions. It was just before 11 p.m., and nothing appeared out of the ordinary.

Little did he know that in a few short minutes, the opulent Andrea Doria would collide nearly head-on with the smaller Stockholm in a maritime disaster rivaled in size, but fortunately not in loss of life, only by the sinkings of the Titanic and the Lusitania four decades earlier.

Artifacts pulled up from the wreckage will be on display, in addition to some that were donated or lent to the museum.

Nantucket’s Bambi Mleczko, who was 9 years old at the time of the collision and on the ship with her family returning from Europe, donated a life vest, and another person sent a martini glass.

“In the big changing-exhibit room, we’ll have the stories of the actual collision,”

Lazarus said. “We’ll have photographs of the rescue, we’ll have some personal stories of people who lived and people who died.”

“There are some sad pieces, and I put in some stories of people who survived,” Lazarus said.

One of the more sensational stories from the tragedy was that of Linda Morgan, who was 14 and on board with her mother, stepfather and 8-year-old half-sister. The girls were in one cabin, and their parents in the other, when the collision occurred. Morgan’s half-sister died, but Linda was catapulted from the Andrea Doria to the Stockholm and, amazingly, survived. Her biological father found her at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the days after the collision.

“On one wall, we’re just going to have images of people hugging, and then we’re going to have two videos in the exhibit,” Lazarus said. “One we’ve always had shows shots of the actual Andrea Doria that were taken from the air. This year, we’re going to show another video that’s a reenactment but has real shots of real people meeting and hugging.”

There will be hands-on activities as well, including a ship built by Ben Moore of Moore Woodworking. Island artist David Lazarus also designed a nautical game for adults and children.

“It’s been a collaborative effort of artists and craftsmen,” Lazarus said.

158 Polpis Road. (508) 228-1885.

Lindsay Pykosz is reporter for The Inquirer and Mirror and regular contributor to Nantucket Today.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.