The new director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has big plans for the Island organization as it heads into a new phase.
Surrounded by old books and documents in the museum library in Edgartown this week, Phil Wallis laid out his vision for the coming years, which includes the completion of a $24 million campaign to fund the museum’s relocation to the old Marine Hospital overlooking Lagoon Pond in Tisbury.
“We are transforming this organization,” he said.
Since landing on the Island this winter, Mr. Wallis has been dropping in on community events from Edgartown to Aquinnah, easily spotted with his tall frame and curly white hair. Residents around the Island have been sharing their stories and providing fodder for future museum programs.
In Aquinnah, Mr. Wallis learned about phenology (the study of seasonal changes) from Wampanoag elder Kristina Hook, and about the Gay Head Light from lightkeeper Richard Skidmore. In Vineyard Haven last weekend, he enjoyed a free play at the public library.
His vision for the museum is both grand and intimate.
“We are all one big Island, we are part of the same natural history, and we have different natural, cultural, historical stories,” he said. “Each is relevant to each other, and reinforces each other.” How to embrace and retell that story is the big question.
Mr. Wallis was born and raised in Philadelphia, where he served as executive director of the National Audubon Society’s Pennsylvania office. He has also worked in real estate and land management, and has an MBA from Wharton. In recent years he oversaw two major capital projects: a historical museum to honor the society’s founder, John James Audubon, and an outdoor education program for young people along the Schuylkill River.
“Natural history is, I am sure, going to be part of the story that we are going to tell,” he said, imagining the possibilities for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. But as a businessman, he hopes to expand horizons and attract a new clientele.
“Customers are probably going to be increasingly families,” he said, noting the museum’s long role as a historical society. “Research needs to be part of what we do, but that’s not going to bring back the base that I think we need to grow.”
The museum expects to hire a new exhibit designer this spring to help translate ideas into reality and plan for the future. “That was not yet done, and it’s critical,” Mr. Wallis said.
Over the summer, Mr. Wallis will oversee the final leg of the campaign to fund the museum’s relocation. But with two $20 million projects in the rearview mirror, he is confident about the road ahead. “We are getting this sucker done,” he said.
But it was more than ambition that brought Mr. Wallis to the Island. He first visited almost 50 years ago, when his grandparents owned a house on West Chop. His brother David, who moved here in the 1990s, alerted him to the job opening at the museum last year. Mr. Wallis and his wife, Carolyn, who manages real estate at the Philadelphia International Airport, had been plotting their move to the Island for years.
“Every time I found out more, I got more and more excited,” Mr. Wallis said of his excursions to the Island last year. “So I said to my wife, you better come up here because this is looking pretty cool. Meanwhile, I’m looking at three or four other jobs. It all came together right around Christmas.”
“I’m going to miss spring, there is no question about it,” he said, recalling his home just outside the city. “The flowers, the gardening, the trees — all of that I will miss because it’s not quite as diverse here.” But he has reveled in the natural beauty of the Island, especially on his early morning walks with Carolyn and their dog Bailey, a Wheaton terrier, in the state forest.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Wallis was drawn to the Vineyard at least partly for its vibrant bird life, and looks forward to getting out with his binoculars this spring. At Audubon, he was involved in The Lost Bird Project, which commissioned artwork to honor extinct species in their former habitats. A bronze sculpture of a heath hen, a species that went extinct on the Vineyard, overlooks a portion of the state forest.
This all goes into the mix of stories that Mr. Wallis hopes to collect and retell at the museum.
“Birding attracted me, but in terms of this job, it was more the extinction of a bird that happened here on Martha’s Vineyard that got me thinking about natural history as a story that this institution can tell,” he said, referring to the heath hen, the last of which was seen on the Vineyard in the 1930s.
Even the rapid pace of development on the Island since the 1980s has sparked ideas and could become an opportunity to strengthen the community. In the face of change, Mr. Wallis sees value in exploring what the Island means to different people.
“I’m asking the board and stakeholders, who are going to be refreshing our mission, to reflect on the transformation that’s going on,” he said. “I think that’s the fundamental question, and everyone has a different answer: What makes this Island special?”
Perhaps his highest aspiration is to develop a culture that will recognize a continuity among the Island’s past, present and future.
“I would like to think that in making history relevant for everyone who comes to this Island . . . that each individual would think about how that knowledge can be relevant in their future,” he said.
With twice as much space, the new location in Vineyard Haven will be able to showcase more of the collection, which includes a large number of paintings, photographs and artifacts. It will also better accommodate contemporary exhibits and programming.
As a lover of the outdoors, Mr. Wallis will continue encouraging responsible stewardship of the environment, but through a slightly different lens.
“Now it’s taking our cultural and natural history and thinking how that can be relevant to our present and future lives,” he said.
There will be a meet-and-greet reception for Phil Wallis on Friday, March 18, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Harbor View Hotel.