The Aquinnah Cultural Center has opened a new exhibit, celebrating the history of the town through voices.

The center is located on the cliffs, at the homestead of the Vanderhoop family. The beautiful white house which now has a role of preserving the town’s history has stunning views of the shoreline. This is the cultural center’s fourth summer, and the latest exhibit is for all who care about Aquinnah and its rich history.

The Oral History Exhibit is a 40-minute audio and illustrated show, presented on a large flatscreen television on the wall in one of the center’s rooms and featuring the voices of nine Gay Headers who know the town. The recordings were made between 1986 to 1991 as part of a Gay Head Library collection. Of the nine interviewed, only three are alive today.

Illustrations and scenic and portrait photographs of the town help the narrative move forward. The photographs and the audio come from museums, private collections and, naturally, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

There are old photographs of the Gay Head lighthouse, formerly a Coast Guard station, when it was surrounded by buildings. There are images of many tribal members dressed in full regalia, and a resident with his big, ox-drawn cart.

For many who sat and watched the show for the first time Saturday morning, it was an emotionally charged experience.

Jeffrey Madison, a former town selectman and active member of the Wampanoag tribe in addition to being one of the voices in the exhibit, said afterwards that he was deeply touched by what he heard, inspired again to recall.

In the audio clips, Mr. Madison recalled his grandfather Napoleon Madison, talking about the era of whaling, the days when Gay Head was a small but vibrant community with a one-room schoolhouse. “I learned more in that schoolhouse as a kid than I did anywhere else,” said Mr. Madison, now an attorney.

There were also pictures of his grandmother, Nannetta Madison, wearing a headband. “She always wore that headband,” Mr. Madison remembered. After the showing, he explained that there was great pride in his grandparents’ way of life, and that the exhibit made the reasons why even more clear.

The late Helen Manning, who was a schoolteacher there, can be heard recalling her teaching days, alongside old photographs of the school. Today, that old one-room schoolhouse is the Aquinnah Public Library. The interviews were conducted by Helen Manning and Kit Dryer.

Those interviewed included Beatrice Gentry, Charles Vanderhoop, Gladys Widdiss, Chief Donald Malonson and his wife, Rachael Pat Malonson, as well as Maysel Vanderhooop and Wenonah Madison.

There were recollections that only old-timers in the town would recall. The Gay Head lighthouse, with its rotating beacon, would flash three white beams and then one red. And it was rated to shine for 19 miles. Today, the lighthouse flashes a sequence of one red, one white, over and over again.

There were descriptions of the Wampanoag tribe’s three events of the year: The Powwow, Moshup’s Pageant, and Cranberry Day.

For Jannette Vanderhoop, program coordinator of the cultural center, the project was huge, extending across many sources, many people and various technical challenges. The original recordings were on analog tape, and needed to be digitalized, transcribed and rendered. The finishing touches to the program were made only the night before opening.

Miss Vanderhoop said the audio collection is extensive, and required considerable editing, and that this project could be worked on and changed as the center looks ahead. She said she sees opportunities for future programs on different themes, based on the extensive audio files. For Berta Welch, president of the cultural center, this was a wonderful effort to help the townspeople and friends of the town get a deeper understanding of the depth and breadth of the town they love.

Indeed, whether speaking of the Gay Head lighthouse or the gatherings for Cranberry Day, the recorded voices speak of a great love for the town.

Tobias Vanderhoop, vice president of the center, said he hopes anyone with an interest in the town will find the exhibit helpful and interesting, as it not only captures the depth of the town and the tribe’s connection to the land, but also brings it to a level that anyone can appreciate. The oral history of the town captures a large piece of a changing community. He said he hopes this will help those who remember have a better memory, and those who are discovering the town for the first time have a greater sense of place. The audio will run continuously when the center is open.

“I heard voices of my relatives for the first time,” said Amira Madison, 20, of Vineyard Haven and Aquinnah. “I know many of the stories, but it is so different to hear it in their voices,” she said.

For others she has known but have since passed on, she said: “It is nice to hear their voices again.”

The cultural center is at 35 Aquinnah Circle, not far from the Gay Head cliffs shops, and is open on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., through to September. Suggested admission is $7; for young people and seniors it is $4.

with permission, MV Gazette

by Mark Alan Lovewell