Beacon of History

Photos courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s greatest relic is also its new home

One of the most ubiquitous pop culture events of the past decade is, without doubt, “Game of Thrones,” the HBO drama adapted from George R. R. Martin’s series of novels called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Of the show’s many characters, the youngest daughter of the Stark family, Arya, has captivated the imaginations and hearts of both television and book audiences because she’s a survivor who learns many of Death’s secrets in her quest for revenge and to save her family from annihilation. Early in her hero’s journey, Arya studies with swordmaster Syrio Forel, who teaches her not only “water dancing” techniques and how to handle a blade but also an essential philosophy that serves her well in a climactic moment for both her character development and for the fate of mankind. Forel, who hails from the ancient city of Braavos, tells her, “There is only one god, and His name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not Today.’”

Although Martha’s Vineyard is worlds apart from the fictional realms in “Game of Thrones,” at times in the island’s past, it too tapped into the nation’s zeitgeist, especially in the early days of the whaling industry and throughout the age of commercial sailing ships, which ended with the completion of the Cape Cod Canal. Located along the old shipping lanes between New York and Boston, the culture—and popular culture in the form of stories, songs and art—of sailing and the sea permeated many facets of life for Vineyard residents. Some of the island’s architectural features and iconic landmarks, such as widow’s walks, inns, the Old Whaling Church and lighthouses, were created to serve this culture; many of them explicitly or implicitly address the inherent risks of a life at sea. One important institution that proved essential to both residents and sailors alike was the U.S. Marine Hospital, which operated on a bluff in Vineyard Haven from 1895 to 1952. The building has recently undergone an extensive restoration, and in March 2019, it opened its doors in its latest incarnation as the new home for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which, in addition to using the structure for exhibits and events, showcases the hospital itself along with its historical significance to the island.