Nantucket Atheneum Donates Important Collection to NHA

The Trustees of the Nantucket Atheneum and the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) are pleased to announce an important gift–one more than one hundred years in the making. A collection of historic artifacts, natural history specimens, and ethnographic objects from around the world, originally loaned to the NHA from the Atheneum in 1905, has now officially been donated to the museum and will henceforth be named “The Nantucket Atheneum Collection.”

Lower mandible (jawbone) of a sperm whale

As the mission of the Atheneum shifted at the beginning of the 20th century from a museum and private institution of learning to that of a public library, the board of trustees decided to move many of the artifacts it housed to make room for books and the expanding library. In 1905, more than 100 items were relocated from the Atheneum to the NHA and exhibited in their newly constructed fireproof museum on Fair Street. Atheneum Executive Director, Ann Scott, explains, “Today’s Nantucket Atheneum transforms donor support into free public library services that enable the whole community to read, listen, learn, discuss, create, and grow. We put our heart into that vision, as the NHA does theirs. Our shared interest is in making sure these items are maintained and available for the benefit of all, and that is just what the NHA has been doing all these years.” For 115 years, in fact, the NHA has managed, protected, displayed, and preserved these loaned items from the Atheneum, making this perhaps one of the longest continually running partnerships on the island.

A few artifacts of note in “The Nantucket Atheneum Collection” include the Thurber & Crosby model of the Nantucket Marine Camels, used to demonstrate the island’s famous floating drydock to investors in 1841; the 15-foot sperm-whale jawbone brought to island by Captain William Cash in the bark Islander in 1865; the spectacular early-19th century model of a Maori waka taua (war canoe) from New Zealand; whale-oil merchant Paul Mitchell’s souvenirs from his European Grand Tour in the 1840s; rare New Ireland dancing masks; and more than five dozen weapons and ceremonial objects collected from the Indigenous people of the South Pacific by Nantucket whalemen.

The Atheneum’s board reached the decision to donate the collection at the recommendation of an appointed Task Force which included a legal representative, a distinguished local historian, and three other highly regarded trustees. In a joint statement Patricia Anathan, NHA Collections Committee Chair, and James Russell, Gosnold Executive Director, note that “the NHA Board and Staff wish to extend our great thanks to both the Atheneum’s Taskforce for recommending and to the Atheneum Board for acting on this advice. These artifacts, many iconic and all extremely rare, have for ten decades enriched the experiences of millions of visitors. This gift underscored the strength of partnership and shows how the community is the big winner when we work together.”

U’u club from the Marquesas Islands

By acknowledging the strengths and individual missions of the Nantucket Atheneum and the NHA respectively, both parties have determined that the permanent housing of “The Nantucket Atheneum Collection” at the NHA best serves the public interest of furthering community education, preserving Nantucket’s shared history, and of telling the island’s stories. Anathan remarked, “I am so pleased with the cooperation and good feeling between our two important cultural institutions. Thank you Nantucket Atheneum. We are so very happy.”The Atheneum is grateful for the NHA’s stewardship of these items for the last 115 years and looks forward to their continued preservation and exhibition by the expert staff at the museum.

The community can access the collection via a new web portal on the NHA’s website. Family activities, such as “The Atheneum Scavenger Hunt” will be available by Valentine’s Day 2021. The Atheneum also looks forward to a continued partnership with the NHA as the Historical Association helps transfer current Atheneum historical artifacts into the CLAMS system, allowing greater accessibility to our community.

The Nantucket Atheneum’s mission is to serve the Nantucket community as the island’s public library by providing free and equal access to library materials, cultural and educational programming, and by creating safe and accessible spaces for connection and learning. Visit nantucketatheneum.org.

The NHA’s mission is to preserve and interpret the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.