In the unheated carriage shed of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on School street in Edgartown, where dozens of this Island’s outsized historical objects are stacked, there is a door from a Chappaquiddick fishing shack on which fishermen have scrawled — mostly in pencil — various items of local news. “Harbour frozen over to Cape Pogue — unable to get in or out. Man seen walking on ice,” reports a note from 1886. The bottom half is marked by an artful pencil sketch of a fish.
It’s precisely the type of fragile artifact that the museum is looking to more effectively preserve — but until the museum’s capital campaign is reassessed in the face of financial constraints, the door, surfboards, sleigh and wagon will stay where they are.
“The museum is resetting its campaign goals and reevaluating the original price tag,” said executive director Keith Gorman last week, referring to the ambitious plan to relocate the museum to West Tisbury, a project which carried a working price tag of $27 million.
The campaign was further complicated when a few weeks ago Edgartown selectmen backed a proposal from Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, to offer the old Edgartown school building, which sits empty and unused, to the museum.
Now a task force, made up of museum staff and board members, is in the process of investigating the viability of the school proposal. Though there has been no official discussion of leasing fees between town leaders and museum board, the costs attached to moving to the old school may be significantly less than those attached to the West Tisbury project.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gorman emphasized that recent developments do not signal a stall in the capital campaign.
“It has not stopped,” he said, “We’re looking at the Edgartown proposal and a number of things are happening simultaneously. Discussion needs to take place and there are a lot of people involved.”
The museum acquired a 10-acre plot in West Tisbury in 2003, situated between the Polly Hill Arboretum and the Agricultural Society. It also recently purchased a 150-year-old dairy barn from the town of Shirley for $1, intending to reassemble it for use as a building in the new West Tisbury campus.
These two actions punctuated a five-year long quiet period in the campaign.
“We are reassessing what’s realistic for fund-raising,” Mr. Gorman said, “What are our greatest dreams and what do we actually need to be a successful world class museum?”
The campaign’s price tag included a significant endowment for the museum to accompany the property development costs — covering money for salaries, storage, furniture, technology, and exhibit design. “There are many layers to it,” Mr. Gorman said.
Museum board chairman Chris Morse characterized the Edgartown offer as a nice surprise.
“This has come over the transom to a degree,” he said, adding: “It’s wonderful to hear the town wants us to stay.”
Mr. Morse said the board was “resetting its goals” but he spoke only in general terms about what this means for the museum financially.
“We don’t have a specific number we’re wrapping our arms around,” he said, adding that there was no specific plan being embraced in the light of the new offer.
“Where we’re going with this is yet to be determined,” he said. “There’s no rush to do something.”
Mr. Gorman would not say how much money has been raised so far in the struggling capital campaign.
The museum has a 27-member board of directors, 12 full-time staff and at least five volunteers at any one time during the summer.
Founded in 1922 as the Duke’s County Historical Society, the museum acquired its first piece of property in 1932 with the Cooke House on the corner of School and Cooke street. Used as society headquarters and to house and exhibit pieces, the colonial house is an artifact in its own right. A recent architectural appraisal found the house, which has never been moved, dates back to at least the 1720s. With no temperature control, it houses some of the museum’s hardier objects and is open as an exhibition space only in the summer. Mr. Gorman confirmed that in any land sale the Cooke house will remain in the hands of the museum, either as a space or as an exhibit itself.
Over the years the museum has expanded, building the reference library building in the 1950s, purpose-building the carriage shed in the 1970s, and acquiring the 19th-century Pease House, now the main exhibition space, in the 1980s, creating a complex which stretches along half a block on School street.
But now Dana Street, who took over as curator from Jill Bouck two weeks ago, does her office work in the Pease House behind a wall lined with boxes of fossils found in Aquinnah, hundreds of photographic images and an old fireman lieutenant’s helmet. The museum, which has bought or received from donation more than 30,000 items relating to Vineyard life in the past 80 years, is running out of space. It is standard practice for a museum to store the majority of its collection. However, according to Mrs. Street, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum currently has more than 90 per cent out of sight.
“The goal is to have an appropriate, climate-controlled, safe environment for storage and exhibiting,” said Mrs. Street, who will have been at the museum eleven years next month. “This is the important point. We want these things to last hundreds of years, if not longer.”