The Museum Reimagined
by: Brian Bushard
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
James Russell sat beside a full-sized wooden model of a whaleboat, beneath the skeleton of the 46-foot sperm whale that hangs in the Nantucket Whaling Museum, and considered how best to reimagine the museum.
It was winter. The walls were bare and the rest of the room was empty. He sipped a beer.
Russell is the executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association. Edwin Rudd, the NHA’s director of facilities, was sitting with him in the half-empty museum. They talked about what artifacts should be displayed, what should be moved, and how best to tell the story of this island.
“The notion that an historical museum should change its exhibits with some degree of frequency, should bring out more of its collections and acquire more art and invite more people on-island to loan their artwork for people to see with greater frequency – that’s what’s happening,” Russell said. The NHA board of trustees had voted several months earlier to renovate the facility. Russell and Rudd’s conversation that night came in the middle of a plan to make about $600,000 in renovations to the museum, and $2.5 million in overall improvements to the NHA’s properties across the island.
“There isn’t a place (in the museum) that’s not changing,” Russell said of the renovations, which started in January with the creation of what is now called the Fine Arts Wing, a two-story exhibition space that had been offices less than a year ago.
“We hear things from NHA members like, ‘Things haven’t changed a lot,’ and ‘You have a lot of things at (the Bartholomew) Gosnold (storage center). Why not hang them up?’,” Russell said.
“There are a lot of things that people have donated to us that are going up now.”
Many of those objects are now in the new Fine Arts Wing, in an exhibit called “Two Hundred Years of American Art,” which opened June 15 in the newly-created first-floor Williams-Forsyth Gallery.
“The first impression people get when they walk into the museum and into the gallery is that it’s more filled up,” Rudd said.
Four months after that winter evening sitting in the empty museum pondering changes, Russell walked through double doors just to the left of the whale skeleton and into the gallery. The exhibition represents 200 years of Nantucket art, from 19th-century painters like Wendell Macy, George Inness and Eastman Johnson, to 20th-century artists like Anne Ramsdell Congdon, Emily Hoffmeier and Richard Hayley Lever.
“The visitor can have a traditional Whaling Museum experience, or they could just as easily come into the Fine Arts Wing and have a very different experience, which is looking at Nantucket history through the lens of fine art,” Russell said.
Just above the fine-art gallery is a new traveling exhibition from The Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s a collection of mid-century modern realist paintings all owned by long-time island summer resident and artist Sara Roby, who donated them to the Washington, D.C. museum upon her death 30 years ago.
Several of the paintings had been on the island once before, in 1984, in the NHA’s Fair Street Museum, which is now its research library. Some of the works were on-island before that, in Roby’s iconic Orange Street home overlooking Nantucket Harbor.
Recently-hired NHA curator Dan Elias walked into the exhibit space with Russell and Rudd.
Elias came to the NHA in February with a resume that includes stints as executive director of the New Art Center in Newton, curator of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and host of PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” in the early 2000s.
“These are gems of American painting, just beautiful paintings,” Elias said. “There’s Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Stuart Davis, Louise Nevelson, Paul Cadmus. There are major American paintings in this room.”
The collection is a reflection on mid-century modern realism, a genre rooted in a range of art styles, from satirical to absurdist and surrealist. The paintings themselves show scenes from everyday life and the arts, from Kuniyoshi’s depiction of two people who appear to be in a circus, “Strong Woman and Child” (1925), to Will Barnet’s painting of two dancers, called “Sleeping Child” (1961) and Bernard Perlin’s “The Farewell” (1952), a birds-eye view of three people walking through a forest of dead trees and bright red ground.
The highlight is a 1950 Edward Hopper oil painting of a woman leaning over a table inside a bay window, peering in the direction of a sunset, called “Cape Cod Morning.”
The space is now equipped with professional lighting, security and climate-control.
“We wanted this to have a totally different feel from the rest
of the museum,” Rudd said. “People can be more relaxed going through here and let their eyes and minds wander through and explore all these fantastic, top-of-the-line pieces of artwork. Once you’re in here for a few minutes and you walk back through those doors, it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m back in the museum, I’m back in the real world’.”
It’s a five-month exhibition that cost $280,000 for the NHA to rent, but Russell saw value in having the collection at the museum, as well as the space it occupies, which he said will hopefully be the home of future high-quality exhibitions.
“It’s expensive. It’s really expensive. But change does not come cheap,” Russell said.
“This gallery is going to be here for over 50 years, and you can see that’s a trivial amount of money for the value that visitors will get over a 50-year period. We’re in the business to impart knowledge and we’re also in the business to please. If somebody comes in and pays $20, we want that person to feel satisfied, just like when you’re in a restaurant, you want to feel like you’ve had a full meal.”
Downstairs, a wall in Gosnell Hall now bears resemblance to a whaling ship. The sounds of a docking ship play out of a speaker overhead, and a spotlight over the whale skeleton leaves behind shadows that look like the sails and ropes of the vessel.
Elias walked through another set of doors opposite the Fine Arts Wing, to the Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory. That space has been redesigned as well.
A wooden plank now connects to an oil press, an original from the 19th-century brick building. It looks just like it would have when it was in use, Rudd said.
Paintings of whalers that had been in storage now line the walls of the room. One side of the building is lit with blue light, with cases of turtle shells, brainshaped coral, a taxidermied penguin and a twisted narwhal tusk underneath. Russell calls it “Neptune’s Grotto.”
Next to it is another new exhibition, this one called “Nantucket and The World.” It tells the story of Nantucket whalers’ global travels through a collection of furniture, books, spears, dolls and whales’ teeth from Europe to Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. It’s Elias’ first curated exhibition with the NHA.
“You recognize people are coming in here out of their normal day, their day on the beach or their work life or their vacation, and they’ve got relatives visiting from Cleveland and they’ve got a flat tire and life is happening,” Elias said.
“I just went into the collection, started digging around for interesting stories from all over the world and put them out according to the compass, starting with the north in the Arctic whaling scene. The job here is having an imagination and an ability to translate an idea, using the artifacts we have and can borrow to tell this story in an engaging way.”
Russell agreed with Elias. Gosnell Hall and the candle factory were last redesigned 14 years ago. The stories in the museum are, for the most part, the same, he said. But changing the way they are told from time to time only enhances the visitor’s experience, he said.
“From the point of view of a focused message, this makes sense,” he said of the renovations. “I think the visitor now is immediately introduced to Nantucket, has a very rich presentation of whaling exploits, Nantucket industries and fine art, and we’re quite proud of what we have to offer.” ///
Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.