It is not often a child gets to hold history. That’s why Nancy Cole, Education Director at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, is especially excited for the summer.

The museum debuts a Hands-on-History exhibit today, which will bring the past to life through physical interaction. Opening in the old kids’ space of the museum’s Pease House, the exhibit consists of a number of stations at which visitors can hone skills characteristic of the Island’s native Wampanoags, and settlers and maritime figures throughout the ages.

“We want to make the museum accessible to more kids of different ages,” said Mrs. Cole. “Museums traditionally tend to be look-don’t-touch. This is an opportunity for people to try, touch and actually experience our past.”

The interactive, multisensory approach is born out of a growing trend in modern museums on the mainland. The funding for the new exhibit comes from the Leavens Family Foundation, and part of the process of creating it included a tour for Mrs. Cole and three fellow museum administrators of museums in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. What struck the travelers most was an exhibit at the Chester Country Historical Society that consisted of a number of shelves full of boxes that contained “mini exhibits,” according to the museum’s assistant curator, Anna Carringer. In the boxes were historic activities and games that museum visitors could try out for themselves.

“We’ve wanted and tried to be more kid-friendly for years,” said Mrs. Cole. The museum’s historic Cooke House has a try-on room for colonial clothing and several colonial-era games that children and families can play in the yard. Hands-on-History will give kids a chance to make spearheads, braid rugs and use antiquated tools.

“The idea behind the exhibit is really to bring people — children, mainly — but families in general ... (who doesn’t like to play?) face-to-face with history and have some fun,” added Ms. Carringer.

The exhibit is designed to change, too. “We will be adding more and more as the summer goes on,” said Mrs. Cole. The museum staff plans to monitor what is working well and what needs amending.

Both Hands-on History and the Island Faces Portrait Competition, another new exhibit being unveiled today, are new approaches to teaching visitors about the Island. The staff hopes that both will fill some gaps in the museum’s current spread of exhibits.

“Everything we do here goes back to people,” said Ms. Carringer. “This exhibit shows a continuum of that trend that relates to the Island as it is today.” The museum launches another new exhibit in a Spotlight Gallery in September. That exhibit will contain more portraits — specifically old ones done of Edgartown residents — that have been restored with the support of the people of Edgartown.

“The two exhibits together will create a nice dialogue through portraiture about the Island,” said Ms. Carringer.


The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s opening reception is tonight, June 15, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the lawn of the museum located at 59 School street, Edgartown. For more information and a list of all exhibits, visit or call 508-627-4441.