Significant Embroidered Narrative Joins Collection

EFA's embroidered narr.

In 2002, Susan Boardman – known on the island for her incredibly detailed embroidered narratives – created one of my friend and mentor, Edith Andrews. As you may recall, edith passed away on October 31, 2015. On January 15th, Edith’s daughter, Ginger brought the embroidered narrative of Edith to me at MMA. She has donated it to the Mitchell House and I am so very touched and proud that she saw it as the home for this amazing work of needlecraft. (The image does not do it justice.) But you will be able to see it on display this summer in the Mitchell House.

The words are Edith’s. It says: Birding is a challenge. It/ offers a wonderful feeling of/ discovery. It is exciting to/ actually see a bird well. I have/ a feeling that I am holding/ that moment in my hand. You have to go and look./ If you don’t look, you don’t see.

Thank you, Ginger!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

Jan. 1880. I read a paper in Boston, Dec. 27, to the University Association. The points I attempted to show were: that we attempt too many studies for thoroughness; that the whole system of prizes and marks is immoral; that the great need of colleges is money and that it is the cause of these; that we have not money because our people do not believe in the education of women.

The question of prizes noted here by Maria Mitchell concern more about colleges providing prizes to others, perhaps even scholarships for which she was called out. Maria was NOT against monetary prizes, meaning scholarships for students. She created a scholarship in her father’s memory and when presented by Vassar College with a pension, she refused it, feeling that such money should go to the students and not her so that those who did not have enough money to attend Vassar would be able to do so. But here, prizes might also reflect our society’s desire to award everyone a prize as you see among younger students whether it be a sports game, a talent contest, or what-have-you. We give prizes for anything and everything. Frankly, we need to stop that. We need to teach young children that not everyone wins and that you learn something from losing. As an article a friend gave to me recently stated, by awarding everyone a prize – even those who come in last – we are not teaching our children to develop grit. Without grit, they give up and without grit, they become adults who give up easily but also assume everything should be given to them and everything deserves an award. Climbing the ladder and working hard to get there, not necessary. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how you or I got where we did, our parents, or our grandparents. Heck, if not for grit, my family may have remained in Ireland or Italy or Germany. It’s too hard to scrape up the funds to go to America. It’s too hard to learn the English language. It’s too hard to start life anew and move to an unknown place. If Maria felt that way, where would women be? Where would women’s education be? Now that is true grit.


Serpents in the Stacks

Serpents Book Illustration

As you know, when I was cleaning the Special Collections books, I came across all manner of interesting books. This one in particular I was asked to keep an eye out for having been a favorite of a dear MMA friend. Happily, I found it!
It seems a little unusual to have but I can understand why we were given it. It’s from 1742. Titled An Essay Towards a Natural History of Serpents in Two Parts it was written by Charles Owen. Frankly, it is a book that might have a hard time finding a home but from a historian’s and even a scientist’s perspective it can be helpful with learning more about the worship of serpents, the belief in them, and how actual snakes and other invertebrates might spawn (sorry) tails (sorry again! I can’t help it!) of serpents. I have provided you with the title page and one of the copper engravings.Serpents Book Title Page dated 1742


AND, AND!  A Happy Birthday to Alice Paul.  Born a Quaker, she was a mover and shaker in the rights for women.  Check out today’s “Google Doodle.”

Scanning Technology Preserving Monuments at Risk

I came across this on the front “page” of the New York Times online the other day. It caught my eye as this is a technology that Preservation Institute Nantucket has been using for a few years and which the MMA has benefited from. We have had all of our historic buildings scanned for preservation purposes. The scanning not only documents a building in exact detail, it also allows us to use such documentation for restoration and conservation purposes as well as maintenance. We can track the building over time to note any changes for future generations and also if something happens to the building we quite simply have a record. The scans are actual photographic images. Unfortunately, we are fast losing a large range of monuments, sculptures, buildings, etc. in territories that are under siege where certain groups see these historic sites as threats to their so-called power. Fortunately, we can document some of them before they are lost though it will not be the same. Kudos to the World Monument Fund/UNESCO/UN and the people who are on the ground doing this work so that future generations can at least know what these monuments looked like and where they were located – continuing to learn about the past and how it shapes the future. No one can take that away from us.



William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell

There are two quotes of Maria Mitchell’s that I deeply love. The first one is, “Standing under the canopy of the stars one can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.” The other is, “The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands.”

I have literally looked up at the stars on an evening and said that first quote aloud to myself. I like to think that everyone is looking down on me from above, keeping me in check, and keeping me on the straight and narrow path in some ways. I have been influenced by, taught and mentored by, and loved by so many people – and I have loved them in return. They have carved out a path before me; guided me on my way, and they are the stars who shine over me.

The second quote is something I repeat to myself when I think of certain people. In particular, I think of my parents when I read this quote or repeat it to myself. It means that no matter what you do, no matter how big or small what you do is, it can make a difference and have an impact. My parents are, of course, my stars. But they have also made a difference in my world and the world at large, as I am sure your parents and others have.

Brain: Two very intelligent individuals, they nurture, educate, and expand our minds and help us to better ourselves. They continue to do so and now they also lead the next generation – their three grandchildren. They teach us right from wrong; they are there with wise advice and another way of looking at something. And they put their knowledge and ability to good use, helping others, not just their children and grandchildren. They have taught us well. And, continue to do so.

Heart: They love us unconditionally and they have instilled in us the desire and belief in giving to others and to helping those in need. Compassion, understanding, sympathy, love. Their action of love and support for others has taught us how to be better human beings and better parents. It has taught us that even if we have the last scrap of food on the Earth that there is someone else who needs it more than us and that scrap goes to that person in need. Now, even as my parents suffer, they see others who suffer too and it hurts them even more deeply than what they are going through.

Hands: They have put a roof over our heads. They have wiped our noses, combed our hair, bathed us (sometimes in a small amount of tepid water, Dad!), and hugged us close when we were scared or upset (“The sun is going to burn out, yes, but not for a LONG time, Jascin.” I am sure my Mom wonders why she let me watch “3-2-1 Contact” – so much for children’s science education programming on PBS). They have dug in the Earth and created beautiful life in plants and spent a hot afternoon that was a beach day inside hanging wallpaper – all in order to give us a more perfect surrounding. They have built the world around us.

They have asked for nothing from us is return except that we live our lives to the best of our abilities, help others, and be happy and compassionate individuals.

This is not an easy post to write. Not sure I have done this justice. Words are escaping me. But, I know that when Maria first wrote these lines, she was thinking about her parents, William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell, just as I think about my parents. Thank you, Maria, for putting it so beautifully. And thank you, Dad and Mom, for being incredible role models and such compassionate and loving people.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

Dec. 9, 1865 I have a class of pupils, seventeen in number, the youngest 16 the eldest 22. They come to me for 50m. every day.  I am no teacher, but I give them a lesson to learn and the next day the recitation is half a conversational lecture and half questions and answers.  I allow them great freedom of questions and they puzzle me daily.  They show more mathematical ability than I had expected and more originality of thought.  I doubt if young men of that age would take as much interest in science.

This was Maria Mitchell’s first semester of teaching.  Vassar Female College had opened its doors in September 1856.  As I have noted before, Maria was skeptical of her ability to teach these young women – the future of female scientists in the U.S.  It was her father’s encouragement that made her realize she could do.  She had also once said that as a general rule “teachers talk too much.”  Thus, her classes were not lectures but as she notes here, conversations and questions and answers.  I realize now that when I taught for a few years here on island, in addition to my MMA duties, I taught very much in the same way.  And I always told them no question was silly – just don’t ask me why the sky is blue when we are talking about the American Revolution!  Yes, there were things I had to cover for my young students, but in my social studies classes we talked a lot as a group with me providing family anecdotes in order for my students to better understand the time we were speaking about.  Of course, Maria often came up too.  But when speaking of the Great Depression, for example, they learned about my Nana and her “new” bike – made by her very mechanically talented brother who collected old and used bike parts from junkyards to make her a “new” bike – she was the only child in her neighborhood in New Haven, Conn. to have a “new” bike – and probably throughout much of the Elm City!  And, I know Maria taught that way as well.

Three Generations at Work

Skip and Jon jr

It suddenly occurred to me when I was taking these photographs that we have three generations working on the electrical upgrades at the MMA Science Library soon to be our science research center.

Vollans Electric is completing the work – all the way from Siasconset! There is Skip (the elder and also the ’Sconset Woodman), his son Jonathon Vollans, and Jon’s son, Jonathon Vollans. Jonathon (the one in the middle as he noted) runs the show. But it’s pretty fun – and I actually taught Jonathon the younger (poor boy) when I taught at the Nantucket New School.


In any case, they are currently working on one phase of the work – installing electrical outlets into the Wing. This portion of the building needs only a very small amount of work – basically the plugs (there are only currently six total outlets keeping in mind the Wing was built in 1933), cleaning and coating the floors, and painting the walls and ceiling on the main floor of the Wing. The main floor of the Wing will continue to play host to office space and books of course! But with an extra desk or two, we need a few more plugs. And given the way the Wing is constructed, all the wiring needs to be on the exterior of the wall – as the six outlets currently are.


Jon Jr

So, things are beginning to move along on the inside. All the contractors are on board and we are planning out the timeline and the delicate art of all of them coming and going. We hope work to begin in earnest soon after the New Year begins so stay tuned!


The Clicker

The Clicker

Instead of moving to the Library for the heat this year, I can’t. It’s going to be a bit of a job site with some of the work it’s going to have to become a lab/classroom. It won’t look too different however!

So, that said, I needed to find a new home for the winter. I will miss my view of Mitchell House and the Observatory as I sit at the original library desk but now I will be in the Observatory – or at least the 1987 seminar room. So now I will be looking back at the Library building instead. A new view.

So anyway, I was over there cleaning off the desk and cleaning out one drawer of probably 20 years worth of office supply debris and what did I come across? The clicker! And I really did exclaim out loud “Oh look, the clicker!” For the tow of you who read this (haha), this clicker was used at open nights all through my youth (and perhaps Vladimir used it too, I don’t remember). But I noted its use by Lee Belserene the MMA’s Director of Astronomy in the 1970s and 1980s. She used to let my brother click us in when we arrived for an open night – I think she had a soft spot for him. I had written a short piece about her a few years ago. So nevertheless, I was very excited to see it and maybe I was exclaiming to her or to Maria, who knows what was going on in my unconscious. But now, for the winter anyway, I will look at it as it sits over my winter desk. I will have to introduce it to our new Director of Astronomy who starts in January – Regina Jorgenson – she may have met it before too when she worked with Vladimir but maybe not. We will find out!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

November 30th. {1857} France did not burst upon me suddenly as I had hoped. We took the route from Folkstone to Boulogne, and when we arrived in Folkstone the sea was awfully rough . . . But we came into Paris in the dark. I came to the Boarding School, and was met by servants who chattered away like parrots but they understood “eau chaud” {hot water} and “feu” }fire}, two very important considerations, for France seems to me the coldest country I ever knew . . . .

Being cold seems to have been a theme for Maria Mitchell while in Europe. Given the warmer but damp climate in which she grew up on Nantucket, I always find it slightly humorous that she complains about the cold. But France, Paris in particular, is a place she took in full stride and loved very much, exclaiming that she saw nothing because there was so much to see and noting how there was so much space in Paris that she could see everything and take in buildings fully. Whereas in crowded London “A building . . . is seen by corners.”

NOTE: I chose and wrote this commentary a few weeks ago, before the incidents in Paris.  I have no good words.  Except PRAY to your higher being and PEACE.  We all live in this tiny space together.

Answer To Do You Know Where This Is?


The image is a portion of the face of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Built by John Deverell in Boston in 1789, the clock was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William Mitchell’s father, Peleg Sr. William and Lydia were married on December 12, 1812 or as Quakers would write it the 12th day of the 12th month 1812. It is a heavy brass works clock that shows the phases of the moons (it rotates with the clock) and the date – useful for a family of astronomers! William and Lydia gave the clock to Phebe Mitchell Kendall, a younger sister of Maria, when she married Joshua Kendall. Phebe then left the clock to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. Willie, as he was called by the family, left it to the Mitchell House in his estate in the 1940s. It still works – I wind it twice per week!