• by Sarah Teach •
One year ago, the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) unleashed the hounds. A team of island historians intent on proving or disproving the island’s collection of myths that have developed over the centuries put their noses to the ground and also into hand-written books older than your grandparents. Associate Curator Sarah Parks explains, “Some stories are rooted in fact. Others have perhaps some truth to them. And some,” says Parks with a laugh, “We’re pretty sure somebody made some up along the way!” Nantucket Legends: Foggy Facts and Fictions, the NHA’s major 2013 exhibition, takes a hard look at the evidence for about a dozen different Nantucket legends, each one receiving its own verdict: Fact, Foggy, or Fiction.
Of course, tall tales are not unique to Nantucket; but there does seem to dwell an inclination to the exaggerative on this remote little island. Betsy Tyler, the NHA’s Obed Macy Research Chair, weighs in on the phenomenon: “History has always been a part of the appeal of Nantucket.” Parks adds, “When Nantucket became a resort location, PR became very important. People wanted to show all the things that made Nantucket quaint and charming.” An example of such promotion is the 1937 brainchild of summer resident Tony Sarg: a grand hoax. Sarg, an artist who is considered by many to be the father of modern puppetry, created an enormous inflatable sea serpent that was floated on the waters surrounding Nantucket. The local press was in on the prank, and Nantucket got its publicity. But apart from puppeteering and practical jokes, sea serpent sightings in Cape Cod waters were widely reported during that time period. Fact, foggy, or fiction? Find out for yourself.
Edibles are the center of several Nantucket rumors. Evidently the 1780s were high time for sending gigantic cheeses to your favorite politicians. But could 1780s Nantucketers truly have tackled the storied 500-pound cheese that was to be sent to wartime friends over in France? And whether you guzzle a daily Starbucks on your way to work, revel in your at-home “Folgers-in-a-cup,” or prefer a steaming spot of tea, you’ll love discovering Nantucket’s role in the morning beverage business. Adjacent to the food factoids, a variety of Nantucket maps is on display, each bearing a distinctly different depiction of the island. Not unlike yarn spinning, map-making differs according to the end goal and skill of the person perpetuating its formation. Some of the more colorful and animated maps were put together for tourists (you’ll see one by Tony Sarg himself), while other maps boast directional precision fit for mariners’ use. The differences lie in how one chooses to see Nantucket. Still, artful interpretations of the island are not limited to tangible works. The NHA has made excellent use of its technological resources in this exhibit, having incorporated The Little Gray Lady of the Sea, a homemade film crafted in the late 1940s by summer residents who wanted to share the glories of their island home. Parks chuckles and comments on the film, “It’s not factually-based; we’ll call it factually inspired! But it reflects the way in which Nantucketers understand their history and explain it to others.”
Test your knowledge after–or before– you go through the exhibit by taking a look at the Fact-O-Meter, the magnetic wall where you can move different factoids into the exhibition’s three categories of veracity. Below the Fact-O-Meter is a box for museum visitors to contribute additional–potentially even contradicting–support about the exhibition’s content. Parks ruminates on the “Foggy” information, saying, “We don’t always have the kind of smoking gun evidence that says this is true and that’s not.” Tyler gives the Fact-O-Meter box a long gaze and says, “We know there’s so much missing.” Nantucket Legends: Foggy Facts and Fictions will be on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum in the Peter Foulger Gallery through November 15, 2013.