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See the new home of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Chief Surgeon Dr. Ralph Mitchell (front row, center) poses with other members of the Marine Hospital staff in the summer of 1941. The hospital officially treated only professional sailors and Navy and Coast Guard personnel, but Mitchell had a reputation for bending the rules to care for sick and injured residents of the town.

Photo courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

By breathing new life into the old Marine Hospital, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has, like Arya Stark and Syrio Forel before her, said “Not today” to death, albeit in a different guise. The hospital closed in 1952, at which point the building’s future seemed tenuous. The town agreed to set a security watch, a rotating staff of three guards, to keep an eye on the place for at least a year following its close of operations. For seven years, the buildings and grounds stood vacant, a looming inspiration for ghost stories, until the St. Pierre School of Sport took possession in 1959. This organization functioned as a summer camp, best-remembered for its sailing program, until 2007, at which point the St. Pierre family used one wing of the building as their residence. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum purchased the property in 2011, but its doors would remain closed for another eight years, until its soft opening in March of 2019. Operations Director Katy Fuller explains, “It was important to us that we open first in the winter; because it’s the island’s museum, we wanted to open first for the islanders.”

For six years, the museum has worked with the Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc. under a permit from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and in consultation with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). While many of the findings remain confidential, Fuller notes, “We conducted archaeological surveys of every square inch of the property,” known as the “Lagoon Pond Bluffs Site.” The team discovered chipped-stone tools, pottery sherds, shells and bone fragments, among other artifacts from pre-contact times, dating back before the 1600s. More recent items include building materials such as nails, glass bottles and clay smoking pipes. During this historical discovery process and in the midst of moving the museum’s exhibits to their new home, a historical expert made an observation that would shift Fuller’s perspective. She recalls, “He suggested that we should stop thinking of any of our pieces as the biggest item in our collection; it’s the Marine Hospital itself, now.”

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