Weaving Nantucket’s Past into the Future

by Suzanne Daub

Some are plain, beautiful in their simplicity and deeply colored by age. Others are elaborately constructed and adorned with carvings of ivory and ebony, scrimshaw, gold, and gems. They are round, oval, square, and even heart-shaped. Many are made to be totes and purses, with others designed as wine coasters, bread baskets, vases, mirror frames, ornaments, and even cradles. 

Weaving Past into the Future

An affiliation between the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum (NLBM) and the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) has brought a superb display of Nantucket lightship baskets to upper Main Street in a new exhibit on the second floor of the NHA’s Hadwen House. 

There is much excitement about the possibilities presented by this joint effort and how it may best benefit our island community. Lightship baskets are “a treasured craft, uniquely Nantucket, that is still practiced today – a living breathing art and craft – that needs to be nurtured and cherished,” commented Chip Carver, NHA Board President. 

Daryl Westbrook, past NLBM president and long-time board member and volunteer, enthusiastically agrees. She is thrilled about the affiliation and the potential for sharing the history and beauty of lightship baskets with more visitors. “Our building was way too small: we couldn’t accommodate the number of people who wanted to attend… the NHA is a gateway for education and the traditions of Nantucket.” 

This year’s exhibit at Hadwen House was curated by Kathleen Myers and includes 100 baskets from the NLBM. Myers has expertly arranged the collection in five different areas to showcase “two decades of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum plus some new items.” There are displays of miniatures, unusual baskets, historic baskets, a basket woven in space by Astronaut Daniel Bursch, baskets made by children who took classes at NLBM, and some spectacular “nests” by modern makers Nap Plank, Karol Lindquist, and Michael Kane. An actual Nantucket lightship basket workroom is also part of the exhibit. “We very much believe this is a continuing craft,” Myers explained. 

In addition to the main exhibit at Hadwen House, displays of lightship baskets and their history can also be viewed in the Decorative Arts Gallery at the Whaling Museum, along with the workshop of well-known and beloved basketmaker José Formoso Reyes. Reyes resided on Nantucket from 1947, learned to make Nantucket lightship baskets from island craftsman Mitchell Ray, and is credited with developing the “friendship basket” pocketbook as well as many innovative styles and designs. 

We talked to James Russell right after the announcement of the affiliation, and he told us that “This affiliation started with conversations between Ari Kopelman & Daryl Westbrook, and the idea of working together came up. Ari suggested that Daryl call the NHA executive director. She did, and the idea quickly gathered steam,” explained Russell. “Daryl displayed enormous courage in doing this. Her foresight is to be commended: she is the hero in all this—she was visionary.” 

“The NLBM directors voted to come to us from a position of strength,” added NHA Interim Director Johanna Richard. “No debt, a collection that complements our collection. They could have gone on alone, no doubt about it… but from the point of view of serving the public and honoring the craft that they so treasure it was better to come together under one roof.” 

“This is pure joy! It is exciting…we are thrilled,” added Susan Blount, NHA Vice President and NHA Board liaison on the transaction. “We want all the passion and energy of the NLBM staff and board brought into the NHA.” 

“Long term plan with NLBM is for the museum to have a Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum Gallery within the Broad Street Campus,” Carver explained. This new gallery is to be dedicated to Nantucket crafts and will place the lightship basket story in the heart of the NHA’s primary facility. 

With education and scholarship being key tenants of both the NHA and NLBM, basketmaking will be integrated into the NHA’s year-round offerings of craft classes for children, youth, and adults. These missions will be manifested in scholarship, publications, oral histories, and in-person and virtual programming. It is anticipated that the combined lightship basket collection will grow, with the clear goal of building comprehensive and world-class combined holdings. These two treasured Nantucket organizations are weaving a new chapter in the story of Nan tucket lightship baskets. 

The Hadwen House, 96 Main Street, is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm, through mid-October. The Whaling Museum, 13 Broad Street, is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission to both is $23; $20 for students & seniors; and $5 for ages 6 to 17.