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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Location of the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum
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