Nantucket History & People

Portraits from the Past

Most visitors expect to see portraits of stiffly-posed sea captains or stuffy businessmen in a museum. However, Nantucket’s history is more than white whaling captains and wealthy merchant families. Nantucket Historical Association’s collection contains thousands of painted portraits and studio photographs of people from many parts of the island’s diverse past.

Opening Daffodil Weekend is Island People: Portraits and Stories from Nantucket, an exhibition of more than 100 images of islanders from the past in the Whaling Museum’s Williams Forsyth Gallery. This exhibit will draw from the NHA’s collection of painted, photographic, and silhouette portraits to highlight both famous and lesserknown Nantucketers whose life stories intersect with the themes and currents of the island’s history.

Exhibit highlights will include the earliest known painted portrait of a Nantucketer; an exceptional tintype of a leader of the island’s 19th-century Black community; portraits of children with their pets; likenesses of millers, innkeepers, tailors, mothers, sailors, and sweethearts in the NHA’s collection.

Michael R. Harrison, NHA’s chief curator & Obed Macy Research Chair said, “Individuals presented in this exhibition represent as broad and diverse a range of island people as possible…We hope the human face of the island’s past will inspire visitors to remember their family stories and how they relate to Nantucket.”

Opening Memorial Day Weekend is the much-anticipated exhibition of paintings, textiles, bronzes, jade items, ceramics, porcelain and more from the collection that Nantucket residents and world travelers David Billings and Beverly Hall Billings have gathered over 50 years. Most pieces included in the show are being shown publicly for the first time, and the NHA is thrilled to host this exhibit.

Included will be some of the earliest known pieces of earthenware from 5,000 BCE and porcelain that dates from the Qing Dynasty. Among the many captivating objects is a pair of exquisite gold finials inlaid with rare kingfisher feathers, a selection of Chinese snuff bottles, Tibetan and tea ceremony objects, a large Butsudan shrine, a Jin Rickshaw, and an articulated diorama of a Peking opera. A Jade body suit burial cleverly concealed will round out this exceptional exhibition.

“This exhibition offers an extraordinary and rare opportunity to examine works of art that reveal Asian culture right here on Nantucket. It…can broaden all of our perspectives,” states NHA Board President Chip Carver. Plan your visit and purchase tickets at

Articles by Date from 2012