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 in the documentation of the Island’s role in American history and greater maritime industry.
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 the early years of the organization, libraries, churches, and private homes were all used as meeting places for the society. In 1932, the Cooke House in Edgartown was acquired and served as the permanent headquarters. While retaining its architectural integrity, this colonial structure (c.1740) was converted into offices and exhibition space.
Open every summer, the society’s collections and membership grew. As a result of a space crunch, leaders in the society purchased 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 Museum by the Coast Guard.
The second new structure was a library building 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 Captain Francis Pease House (c. 1840) adjacent to the library was purchased. This building provided space for offices, collections storage, exhibitions, a conference room, and a museum gift shop.
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 and its extensive holdings of three-dimensional objects, archival documents, historic books and photographs, paintings, and museum exhibits.
Today, the Museum remains committed to aiding in the education of Island school children as well as offering Island residents adult education programs. There are currently 1100 individual, family, and business memberships, and the Museum is open to the public year round. It has a professional staff of 12 and publishes The Dukes County Intelligencer, a journal of Vineyard history, as well as other significant books, guides, novels, and brochures.
The present Edgartown campus is about one acre in size, and is located two blocks from the Old Whaling Church and the shops on Main Street. Beyond the campus buildings and exhibits, the Museum was given the stewardship of the Gay Head, East Chop, and Edgartown lighthouses in 1995. Interpretive tours of all three are offered from Memorial Day to Columbus Day annually. The Museum also owns a Catboat named Vanity. This beautiful sailboat represents a time when Island families relied on these boats for their economic livelihood.