By P.K. Simonds
Fans of the Woods Hole Historical Museum are sometimes confused to see signs, postcards or old issues of Spritsail referring to us as the Woods Hole Historical “Collection” instead. We can settle the issue right now: we are both. We are the Museum and the Collection. But the way we are known has evolved over the years, and the reasons for that speak to a very important part of our mission.
The “Collection” refers now mostly to the Archives, that treasure trove of historical records, etchings, paintings, letters, manuscripts, oral histories, calling cards, vintage nautical charts and the like which occupy the top of Bradley House (as well as some space in the library).
When you visit the museum, much of what you see exhibited is from our collection. But the archives are more than a larder to stuff with whatever’s not up on the walls downstairs. Much more.
Think for a moment about how history becomes history, instead of a vanishing memory.
Life, for most of us, is a long process of accumulation. We file away bills, journals, trophies, postcards, albums, blueprints, news clippings, shopping lists, receipts and pretty much anything else you might imagine. Each of these saved items means something. Each has a story attached to it. And each of those stories is part of a tapestry, a grand weave of plot strands that makes up the narrative not just of our own lives, but each life we’ve touched.
It’s the loose, untailored fabric of history.
Until the day comes when our things start to flow in another direction. Instead of accumulating, we start giving our things (and our parents’ or grandparents’ things) away. The Tiffany lamp goes to your daughter, the wedding album to your son, the needlepoint footstool to Cousin Bill. This is all fine and reasonable (assuming Bill’s okay with the footstool), but it’s also when history begins to break down.
Most of us live lives too busy to pore through the housefuls that our ancestors leave behind. My grandfather’s tall metal file cabinet stood in the corner of my father’s study for over a year after he died, unexamined. Then one day the cabinet disappeared. A few years later my father died. Now my grandfather’s records were gone, along with the person best able to tell me what they might have meant.
Imagine instead that I still had my grandfather’s files. That’s better than letting them slip away, but it’s only half a solution. What would I do with them? How would I know what to keep and what to get rid of? How would I organize what was left? Would it now be my job to answer every request from cousins and nieces and nephews wondering what had been left by their ancestor?
You get where we’re going with this. The answer to all of these questions is simple: The Woods Hole Historical Collection.
Let’s say your last name is Crowell. Or your middle name, or your grandmother’s cousin’s name. Crowells have relatives everywhere, especially here in Woods Hole. If you’re a Crowell, or your ancestors knew one, or lived in a house built or owned by a Crowell (there were many), or they worked in a business along with a Crowell (not unlikely, since Captain Prince Sears Crowell was the Pacific Guano Company’s first president), you’re in luck. There’s plenty to learn about your family, all well preserved and organized, here in the Archives. Why? Because the Crowells have been among the most diligent donors of family records to the Woods Hole Historical Collection. (Along with the the Cahoons, the Davises, the Fays, the Fishes, the Giffords, the Howes, the Morses, the Swifts and many more.)
Here’s a small sample of what you might find of the Crowells if you came to the Archives -items of interest to family, to general historians, or to anyone curious about the history of our town: the diary of Polly Crowell, aged 15, dated 1901 (what she wore, what she ate, whom she liked, whom she didn’t); the bill of sale for the Eleazar Nickerson property, 1859 (it will make your house seem highly overpriced); the rules for government of pupils at Lawrence High School in 1896 (we’re guessing no reference to texting on campus); the autograph book of Persis A. Crowell, from 1859 (likelier to feature the scrawl of Ralph Waldo Emerson than Elvis Presley, but you never know); Word War II ephemera, including draft cards and ration coupons (on the minus side it was hard to get hold of too much butter, on the plus side it was hard to get hold of too much butter); a photograph of the Pacific Guano Company grounds, 1870 (it looks a lot better than it smelled); a real estate tax bill to Mercy F. Crowell, 1888 (it may seem cheap, but remember they didn’t have to pay for sunscreen bottle removal after every beach season); and, thrillingly, the original typed note with which Emperor Hirohito’s book “The Hydroids of Sagami” was presented to Sears Crowell (the Guano Company president’s scientist grandson) on the Japanese leader’s visit to Woods Hole in 1988 (wow).
The preservation, organization and display of these treasures is made possible by the tireless efforts of Susan Witzell, Jennifer Gaines and others, who are digitizing, cataloguing and cross-referencing countless items and making them available to everyone. Also by the financial support of the Museum’s many friends.
But that’s only half the story.
History, in a sense, is not just what lies behind, but what lies ahead. We are each making history, Woods Hole history, every day. We are gathering it photograph by photograph, blueprint by blueprint, journal by journal, and storing it away in our personal files. The folks here at the Museum – and the Collection -are excited to be making room for new generations of personal history, and we’ll need your help in several ways to make that possible. One, we are beginning the long range planning process needed for the expansion and modernization of our archival facilities, and two, we are urging our community to think of us when it comes time to find a new home for the stuff of our memories. We hope you will consider sharing it, not just with future generations of your nuclear family, but with your larger Woods Hole family, who will preserve it, organize it, ensure access to it -and treasure it -always, at the Woods Hole Historical Museum (and Collection!).