Nantucket’s engaging small museums are informative on many aspects of the island’s rich heritage. Here are three favorites.
The Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum was beautifully renovated in 2005. As well as the process of whaling, it explores life on the island when the business ruled the local economy, plus the arts and crafts to which the industry gave rise. The main hall is dominated by the 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale, suspended from the ceiling. Here you can view the Ric Burns documentary “Nantucket” and the excellent multimedia presentation “Whale Hunt.” In particular, I loved seeing the intricate carvings made from whalebone and sperm whale teeth, the scrimshaw that sailors created to while away the time at sea. I recommend the all-access pass, which will admit you to the museum as well as other sites administered by the Nantucket Historical Association.
13 Broad Street. Tel. (508) 228-1894
No handicraft is more closely associated with Nantucket than the lightship basket. These were first made of rattan and were free-form. Over time, in emulation of baskets made by the Native Americans, they acquired the wooden base that give them a structure. When the whaling business on Nantucket faded, many former crew members served on lightships that were anchored around the island to prevent wrecks. With time at their disposal, many of these men elevated the art of basketmaking. In the late 1940s, a maker named José Formoso Reyes added a loose-fitting top, with a swing handle or a leather strap, which made the baskets even more attractive and practical. The museum has wonderful displays outlining this evolution of a true piece of American folk craft/art, plus a step-by-step look at how a basket is made today, displays of notable baskets past and present, and Reyes’ original studio with all his tools.
Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum
49 Union Street. Tel. (508) 228-1177
This fascinating museum is set beside a scenic salt marsh. Among the most interesting exhibits are one of three surviving surfboats used in rescues by the Massachusetts Humane Society; artifacts from the Andrea Doria, which sank off the island in 1956; and a wonderful film on Mildred Jewett, known as “Madaket Millie,” an island character who lived by the sea and obsessively watched out for ships in distress. Her efforts saved many lives, for which she was awarded the Coast Guard’s highest civilian honor in 1975.
Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum
158 Polpis Road. Tel. (508) 228-1885