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Visiting the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum

January 16, 2016
Exterior of Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum
Exterior of Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum

Exterior of Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum

The Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving museum is small but packed with history.

If you favor small museums that are tightly focused, you’ll enjoy visiting the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Housed in a cedar shake building with fresh white paint trim, it’s located on Polpis Road. The exterior looks so much like the residences on the island that it might be mistaken for one of them.

Entering the Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum

Entering the Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum

Upon entering the well-organized exhibit space that seems to curve around the exterior walls, visitors find a beautifully curated collection of permanent and temporary exhibits—which include models, films, paintings, photographs and a unique collection of more than 5000 nautical artifacts, Together, they tell the story of Nantucket’s history of shipwrecks and lifesaving. There are also whimsical interactive exhibits that will catch the fancy of children.

Artifact display at Shipwreck and LIfesaving Museum

Artifact display at Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum

Faking Box, lifesaving device

Faking Box, lifesaving device

Reporting of sinking of Nantucket Lightship

Reporting of sinking of Nantucket Lightship

26-foot Nantucket surfboat used for rescue

26-foot Nantucket surfboat used for rescue

We were very fortunate to join a small group tour with Dick Mack, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable retired lightship crewman who was also a great storyteller. (Lightships were ships that served as lighthouses.) Having lived aboard one of these ships more than 50 years ago, his reverence for history and preservation of life was obvious.

Retired lightshipman Dick Mack

Our guide, retired lightship crewman Dick Mack

Mack told us that the Humane Society of the Commonwealth was established as early as 1785. Before trains and planes were used for transportation and shipping, wooden ships carrying goods often had to pass by the dangerous shoals around Nantucket in stormy weather. Nicknamed the Statue of Liberty in the Sea, the Lightship Nantucket marked the shoals.

More than 700 ships never made it and loss of life was frequent. In fact, the area was called a “graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Map of shoals and shipwrecks in Nantucket; red lights show shipwrecks

Map of shoals and shipwrecks in Nantucket; red lights show shipwrecks

Predating the establishment of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1798, Boston volunteers (including Paul Revere and Sam Adams) created the Humane Society of the Commonwealth to find a way to prevent these tragedies at sea. To recruit help, the society awarded financial stipends to those who helped save lives while risking their own.

Lifesaving procedures and practices

Illustrations of lifesaving practices, procedures and pastimes in Nantucket

The brief 10-minute films in the museum’s program gallery offer a glimpse back at life on Nantucket through the years. Nantucket still has three lighthouses, the most popular of which is on Brant Point, which welcomes visitors who arrive by ferry. One film told the compelling story of these lighthouses, their keepers and their families. Another included actual video footage of the “No Name Storm” of 1991 that resulted in $30 million of damage on Nantucket.

We spent about an inspiring hour at the museum, a perfect destination on a dreary, rainy day. Family-friendly, it’s great place to take children and grandchildren who will also enjoy the small gift shop with nautical souvenirs.

Model of Andrea Doria that collided with MV Stockholm near Nantucket in 1956

Model of Andrea Doria that collided with MV Stockholm near Nantucket in 1956


IF YOU GO

Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum (an affiliate of Egan Maritime Institute)

158 Polpis Road, about 3.5 miles from the historic center of town by bike, auto or bus

Open: Memorial Day through Columbus Day 10AM-5PM daily (call ahead to find out when tour guides will be available).

Cost: $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, $5 for youth 6-17.

Portrayal of rescue in a storm

Portrayal of rescue in a storm


Location of the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum


Also on More Time To Travel:

  • Reply
    Susan Frost
    January 16, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    Nicely described and written.

  • Reply
    Penny
    January 16, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    A definite must-visit the next time I’m in the area!

  • Reply
    Sand In My Suitcase
    January 16, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    How precarious sailing on the oceans was! This looks like an interesting museum to visit in Nantucket :-).

  • Reply
    Marilyn Jones
    January 16, 2016 at 11:22 pm

    I love a good museum and this one looks very interesting and well done. Thank you for sharing The Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving museum.

  • Reply
    Rachel Heller
    January 17, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    I’ve only been to Nantucket once, and that was decades ago, but I went to Martha’s Vineyard every summer when I was a kid. It’s fascinating to me to see how risky it was to live in a place like that: getting to and from was dangerous, storms could stop supplies from arriving, etc. Those “widow’s walks” you see on both islands, where women walked in hopes of seeing the masts of their husbands’ whaling ships returning, illustrate how precarious life was.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      January 17, 2016 at 12:38 pm

      The fact that both islands look so bucolic now makes their history is all the more fascinating!

  • Reply
    Lauren
    January 20, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    This so worth going to visit. Is is rich in history. Be sure to go to Whaling Museum in Nantucket and listen to the guided tours & talks & uou will lean so much. My Great-Grandfather George Purdy was the Lighthouse Keeper & you can see his Lighthouse light inside the Museum!

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