Inside the Collection

by: Brian Bushard

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

When you walk through the Nantucket Whaling Museum past stoic portraits of whaling captains, harpoons, the skeleton of the sperm whale that hangs above Gosnell Hall, up the steps across from the clock’s gears to the rotating exhibits, you begin to piece together an image of Nantucket in the 18th and 19th centuries.

When Nantucket Historical Association collections manager Tony Dumitru walks through the museum, in the back of his head he is thinking about the pieces from the museum’s collection that are not on display. Only a fraction of the its collection of paintings, whaling implements, scrimshaw and folk art can be displayed at any one time.

Tony Dumitru, NHA collections manager, opens a drawer of scrimshaw whale teeth. These are artifacts from a time when the crew on whalers busied themselves on their muti-year voyages by etching images into the teeth of sperm whales they had caught.

“What’s important is to have dynamism at the museum,” Dumitru said. “If the museum keeps a lot of its collection in storage, then the message is static. But with the collection rotated on a regular basis, we can bring the hidden treasures to the public. It’s important to convey that message.”

Dumitru pegs the amount of the collection that can be on display at any one time at about four percent. The majority of the NHA’s nearly 17,000 objects, documents and artifacts are in storage at its Bartholomew Gosnold Center on Bartlett Road and the Fair Street Research Center, left for Dumitru and curator Dan Elias to sift through, in a curatorial process of deciding what should be displayed and when.

The collection is a combination of purchased, donated and bequeathed items, which has been slowly accumulating since the NHA was founded in 1894. The objects at Gosnold are stored away, sealed in boxes and logged in the NHA’s archives. They include everything from paintings to scrimshaw, china, furniture, silverware, clothing and whaling tools and instruments.

They’re the pieces of folk art and decorative art that tell the story of not only Nantucket’s whaling history, but everyday life on the island, NHA executive director James Russell said. It’s the NHA’s mission to tell those stories, he said, and by both adding to and cycling through its collection, it can better tell them.

“The philosophy we have taken over the past three years is to show more, open up more spaces to present these works,” Russell said.

“We’re working hard toward updating our presentations on native people. We’re working hard on updating our presentations on notable women in suffrage. We say it's an insti-

tutional priority. It cuts across digital, libraries, curatorial, conservation, acquisition. It allows us to focus on a particular area, see where we have gaps, see where we can fill those gaps and present the work.”

One of those gaps Russell identified was in its collection of maps of the island. Instead of showing similar versions of the same map of the island, Russell wanted to tell a broader story. He chose an 1872 map depicting the Gulf Stream from Florida to Nantucket, a tactile map created for the blind, and a 1675 navigational map by Dutch cartographer Arent Roggeveen.

The idea is to continue adding to the collection through both donations and purchases, and at the same time, examine the collection to see which areas are weak.

Sometimes, Russell added, you find something you didn’t even know about, something you immediately want to put on display.

Last summer, Elias was working on a new exhibit at the Hadwen House on Nantucket’s role in the abolitionist movement. He had been looking through the collection for newspaper clippings on the subject and found a copy of a pre-Civil War paper from Baltimore that listed a reward for capturing abolitionist and Nantucket whaler Paul Cuffe.

It became part of the centerpiece in the exhibit.

“I found that in a newspaper collection and it was by pure luck I found that slave ad on the back. Things land there that have no right to be there but they relate in some way,” Elias said.

“You may have an idea of what the 18th or 19th century story is. But when you go to the collection, it has a way of slapping you and all of a sudden you have this thing that jumps out at you and now you’re trying to get that in.”

This summer and fall, Dumitru said the NHA is going to be gathering pieces for an exhibit on Nantucket’s role in the Revolutionary War. He pointed to one item in the collection, a chair from a Nantucket ship involved in the Boston Tea Party, the Beaver, which he saw as a necessary part of telling that story.

“We are the stewards of Nantucket history,” he said. “We try as much as we can to share these hidden treasures with not only summer visitors but also the local community.”

Russell agreed.

“We haven’t exhausted our inventory much,” he said. “However, we do need to make sure we’re telling new stories.” ///

Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. He writes frequently about the arts.