Part smart art gallery, part historical treasure house, part curio cabinet and part Grandpa’s attic (if Grandpa spent a lot of time in the once-frozen north), the Provincetown Museum is unlike any other. As the front door to the Pilgrim Monument, it is sometimes overlooked by visitors. That’s a pity, because there’s something for everyone here: artwork from the town’s painters, sculptors and artisans; full-scale recreations of a captain’s quarters at sea and on land; a dramatic diorama of the Mayflower; illustrative scale models of Lewis Wharf and of a fishing weir; a charming (but not-quite-to-scale) model of the Long Point settlement; Provincetown’s first fire engine; an antique doll house; and specimens of Arctic wildlife brought to town by Rear Admiral Donald Baxter MacMillan (1874-1970), of 473 Commercial Street.
There is good reason that the museum feels like something of an amalgam of separate institutions. It is just that. At its core, it includes the collection of the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, which was incorporated in 1892 with the principal purpose of building the monument, a goal it achieved 18 years later. Even more consequentially, it includes the collection of the Research Club and its Historical Museum, which was once housed in the Benjamin Lancy mansion at 230 Commercial Street.
Laurel Guadazno, the education and program director at the museum, tells the story of this unusually named club in “Origins of the Collection.”
“The Research Club was organized in 1910 by a group of women whose objective was to restore the old [Winthrop Street] burying ground, place historical markers, do ancestral research and preserve an old Cape Cod house in Provincetown. As part of their work to place historical markers, the ladies began reading old letters and historical documents. They found this research so interesting that they began to write papers and present their research as part of the regular club meetings.”
Then they took on something far more ambitious: a museum of historical artifacts and documents. This opened in the Lancy mansion on 27 May 1924. And it later profited considerably from the generosity of Admiral MacMillan, Provincetown’s No. 1 hometown hero, who donated dozens of mementoes — a number of them stuffed — from his Arctic expeditions. This odd showcase of taxidermy includes the head of a walrus from northern Greenland, one and a half polar bears from northern Greenland, and an entire musk ox and white wolf from Ellesmere Island.
By the mid-1950s, the Research Club was no longer able to maintain the museum. It turned the property over to the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association in 1956. The association ran both institutions — the Pilgrim Monument and the Historical Museum — simultaneously but separately through 1961, when construction began on a new museum building at the base of the monument. The original architect was George F. Clements, succeeded by Richard S. Gallagher. It would flatter the cinderblock building to call it nondescript, but the gallery spaces were ample enough. The collections were moved up from the Lancy mansion and the new museum opened in 1962. Four years later, the structure was expanded to incorporate a freestanding storage building, creating a new wing in the bargain.
Leaders of the museum over the years (their titles have varied, from director to curator to executive director) have included Melville T. Nichols, for whom a museum wing is named; Arthur Bickers; Clive Driver, the author of Looking Back, a collection of his columns on historical subjects for The Provincetown Banner; Chuck Turley; and James R. Bakker of 180 Bradford Street, an art auctioneer, private art dealer, appraiser and curator, who presided at the monument’s centenary in 2010.
The current executive director, John McDonagh, was appointed in 2011. He had previously been executive director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum complex in Plymouth, Mass., from 2005 to 2009, and the president and chief executive officer of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, from 2009 to 2010. ¶ Posted 2013-01-30