About Martha’s Vineyard Museum

THE MISSION OF THE MARTHA’S VINEYARD MUSEUM

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum inspires all people to discover, explore, and strengthen their connections to this Island and its diverse heritage.

A HISTORY OF THE MARTHA’S VINEYARD MUSEUM

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum was originally known as the Dukes County Historical Society. It was founded in 1922 and incorporated the following year. The founders first acquired revolutionary era documents, which started the collection. They devoted a great deal of their time, energy, and resources towards the documentation of the Island’s role in American history and greater maritime industry.

As a result of the space limitations of meeting in libraries, churches, and private homes, in 1932 the Society purchased the Thomas Cooke House in Edgartown to serve as the permanent headquarters. While retaining its architectural integrity, this colonial structure (c. 1740) was converted into offices and exhibition space. As the Society’s collection and membership grew, additional space was needed, which led the organization to purchase the property adjoining the Cooke House in 1947. Several new structures were built on this acquired land. The first new structure was a small tower built to highlight an original 1854 Fresnel lens. The lens had been removed from the Gay Head Lighthouse and was given to the Historical Society by the Coast Guard.

The second new structure was a library building which opened in 1954. As the collection continued to expand, a new wing was added to the library (1978) to house a permanent maritime exhibit as well as provide archival storage space. In 1989, the organization purchased the Captain Francis Pease House, (c. 1840) located adjacent to the library. This building provided space for offices, collections storage, exhibitions, a conference room, and a gift shop.

The Society signed a long term lease agreement with the Coast Guard to steward the Edgartown, East Chop, and Gay Head Lighthouses in 1992. The agreement is still in place for the East Chop and Edgartown Lighthouses. The Town of Aquinnah assumed stewardship of the Gay Head Light in summer 2018 when ownership transferred from the Coast Guard.

In 1996, the Society’s name was changed to the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society to reflect the main emphasis of the institution’s collections which are strictly those concerning Martha’s Vineyard. The only other town within Dukes County is Gosnold on the Elizabeth Island of Cuttyhunk, which now has its own museum and historical society.

In 2006, the organization decided to change its name from the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The new name was intended to better reflect the organization’s mission of not only collecting, but exhibiting its extensive holdings of three-dimensional objects, archival documents, historic books, photographs, and paintings.

Realizing the need for more and better collection storage space, improved access, and additional space for exhibitions and public programming, the Museum purchased the former 1895 Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven in 2011 following an extensive feasibility study. A $31 million capital campaign was quietly launched soon after to raise funds to renovate the historic structure and add onto it. The campaign went public in June 2016. The Museum broke ground on the new campus on Memorial Day weekend 2017 and construction began shortly after.

A Certificate of Occupancy was issued in December 2018 for the new campus. The Museum had a soft opening to the public in its new home on March 13, 2019. A larger grand opening weekend was held in June 2019, coinciding with the opening of the blockbuster exhibit Benton’s Martha’s Vineyard, which featured works by artist Thomas Hart Benton.

Portions of the original Museum campus in Edgartown were sold as part of the move to Vineyard Haven, but the Museum maintains ownership of the historic Cooke House and the surrounding property. The grounds have been transformed into beautiful gardens to create the Cooke House and Legacy Gardens.