Time and Timing

Time is the foundation of any historical museum. So it is with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, formerly known as the Dukes County Historical Society. In its boxes filled with historical artifacts from the Island’s past, in the pages of its quarterly history publication, the Intelligencer, and on the grounds of its Edgartown campus, where a Fresnel lens from the Gay Head Lighthouse and a Noman’s Land boat may be found, time and its passage are a constant subtext, as are the parallels and contrasts between the modern era and earlier times on the Vineyard.

Timing — the decision to pursue a certain action at a particular time — would seem to matter less at the museum, a well-established Vineyard institution that long has quietly and successfully pursued its mission of recording the Island’s past.

But timing is taking on increasing importance at the museum, which launched a campaign in Two Thousand Two to fund a major expansion at a price tag now set at twenty-seven million dollars.

In retrospect, had the museum started its campaign a few years earlier, in the midst of the economic boom of the late Nineteen-Nineties, the organization already might have realized its plan, in which the museum and its holdings would move to a major new campus in West Tisbury.

Instead, the campaign, which so far has raised three million dollars, remains far short of its goal. And the museum has found itself saddled with a sizable operating deficit tied in large part to costs associated with the campaign.

The deficit is not fatal. Keith Gorman, the new executive director who inherited the problem, said the museum’s auditor is comfortable with the organization’s moves and plans to pay off the debt. Mr. Gorman forecasts a slight surplus at the end of the current fiscal year.

The larger question is what to do about the planned expansion. Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, has suggested the museum use the old Edgartown School as an alternative site. A museum task force subsequently determined that the building is structurally sound and could be retrofitted to accommodate the museum. The task force also came up with a range of cost models for the alternative site, all substantially less than the West Tisbury plan.

The national and Island economies already have been softening in recent years, and signs are evident of even more difficult times ahead. In such a climate, the museum board of directors is right to reconsider its original, ambitious plan, and to explore more feasible options. The board and Mr. Gorman also deserve credit for addressing the deficit head-on, and forthrightly discussing the organization’s finances with potential donors.

For a museum increasingly boxed in at its current site in downtown Edgartown, the appeal of a large West Tisbury campus is obvious. Yet, as Mr. Gorman well knows with his background as an archivist, the core of any historical museum is its collection, not the buildings which house that collection. The priority of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum should be to better protect and preserve its records and artifacts, many of them now housed in storage without climate control.

The Edgartown School may well represent a step toward better protection and fuller display of the museum’s mosaic of the Island’s past. While an even larger space could lie in the museum’s future, this is a time for prudence, and for emphasizing the essentials.