Museum in Limbo

Less than two years ago, the board and staff of the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, now called the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, were brimming with optimism about their chances for raising twenty-five million or more dollars to pay for an extensive new campus in West Tisbury. The time had come, they said, to give the society’s extensive historical collection the display that it had long deserved, in a beautiful and spacious setting on property along the Panhandle Road.

Matthew Stackpole, who was executive director at the time, said the museum was confident that it could raise the money. “The people on this Island value their Island history,” he said.

But even then signs were appearing that Island wallets capable of large donations were tightening. The society had already begun to scale back plans for the West Tisbury campus, dropping plans for a lecture hall, a cafe and a permanent art gallery space, shaving five million dollars from an initial estimated cost of thirty million dollars.

Now, with the economy worsening, there are signs that the West Tisbury project has quietly drifted into limbo. Museum leaders said recently they will explore the idea of possibly using the former Edgartown School building as an expanded home.

There are troubling signs that the museum leadership is in disarray. Mr. Stackpole has left to work for the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. His successor, Keith Gorman, does not live and work on the Island full time. Museum dboard members are mum about how much money has been raised, building more doubt.

The use of the former Edgartown School may make sense as a near-term move. But at this juncture it appears the real need is for the museum to reassess its finances, its expansion plans and its capital campaign, and to share the conclusions with Islanders, frankly and openly.