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50 States of Preservation: The Star Island Corporation in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

April 6, 2017
Women wrapping the may pole
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Star Island Oceanic Hotel 1916

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation.  

This feature is part of a series we call “50 States of Preservation,” in which we are touring small and mid-sized museums, libraries, historical societies, and other repositories across the country to show how they are helping to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.  Read other entries in the series here.

Star Island Oceanic Hotel 2015
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Star Island Oceanic Hotel 2015

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation.
A Bath Order from the Grand Hotel Era, found between walls
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A Bath Order from the Grand Hotel Era, found between walls during the demo stage of recent renovations to the Oceanic Hotel Fourth Floor

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation. 

A major center for cod fishing since the colonial era and a vacation spot for wealthy Bostonians in the 19th century, Star Island is the second largest (at 38 acres) of a chain of nine islands known as the Isles of Shoals located about 10 miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Since 1960, Star Island has been home to the Celia Thaxter Museum, which along with a library and archives is located in the historic Vaughn Cottage.  Together, they hold a diverse collection of books, manuscripts, photographs, art works, and other materials related to the history of Star Island and the Isles of Shoals.

Collection: Dreamboats - People of the Shoals
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Collection: Dreamboats - People of the Shoals

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation. 
Collection: Appledore House Menus
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Collection: Appledore House Menus

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation. 

The museum is named for poet and artist Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835-1894), the daughter of a Thomas Laighton who was once the lighthouse keeper on White Island and whose family owned and operated a hotel on nearby Appledore Island.  In its heyday, guests included such notable New England figures as writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and artist Childe Hassam.  The latest phase of Star Island’s history began in 1897 when the Unitarian and Congregationalist churches initiated a series of annual conferences for ministers and Sunday school teachers.  Now open to the wider public, the conferences remain a central focus of island life.

Star Island’s chapel stands on the highest point on the island
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Star Island’s chapel stands on the highest point on the island and has for over 200 years

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation.
Celia Thaxter Exhibit, November 2016, Star Island Corporation Office, Portsmouth
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Celia Thaxter Exhibit, November 2016, Star Island Corporation Office, Portsmouth. Includes Celia Thaxter’s original, hand-painted pottery.

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation. 

The collections of the Celia Thaxter Museum document more than 400 years of Shoals history. They range from the humble tools of the early fishermen who eked out a meager existence on what was then a remote and inhospitable place, to displays of the furniture, china, and paintings that once decorated the islands’ opulent hotels.  The museum contains more than 100 paintings and watercolors, 7,000 photographs, and 600 Native American artifacts.  Its programs and exhibits focus on the nearly 12,000 visitors--tourists, conferees, members of school groups--who travel to Star Island every summer.

Celia Thaxter Exhibit, November 2016, Star Island Corporation Office, Portsmouth
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Celia Thaxter Exhibit, November 2016, Star Island Corporation Office, Portsmouth. Includes Celia Thaxter’s original, hand-painted pottery.

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation. 
Collection: Historic Maps
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This nautical chart was part of the American Coast Pilot publication that provided such charts for sailors on the Atlantic Coast.  This map was published in 1864 as part of the 17th edition.

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation. 

In recent years, the Island Heritage and Artifacts Committee of Star Island Corporation (SIC) renewed its commitment to care for its rich humanities collections. In 2015, SIC received a Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museums and Library Services to construct a temperature controlled room and install light monitoring equipment and a vapor barrier to reduce humidity in the collections area. 

Wabanaki Country
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“Wabanaki Country” is an entirely different type of map, aimed at demonstrating human, rather than physical, geography. Created by Stacy Morin in 1988, the map comes from a book in the Vaughn Cottage Museum’s collection about the natives who lived on the mainland near the Isles of Shoals immediately prior to European settlement.

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation.  Wabanaki Country: The Wabanaki and Their Native American Neighbors from Ancient Times to the Early 18th Century (From an unnumbered book, Vaughn Cottage Museum collection).
1857 map of Gosport
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This 1857 map of Gosport demonstrates how the population was spread on Star Island during the town days and provides evidence that many names for geographic features have changed. 

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation. 

The grant also supported cleaning and rehousing of each item and ensuring intellectual control of the collection.  Moreover, objects conservator Barbara Moore assisted staff in monitoring changes in temperature and humidity that could damage collection items. During the summer of 2016, under Moore’s direction, Jenna Bossert and Sam Pike, museum studies interns from Rochester Institute of Technology, carried out sound preservation practices and rehoused collection items.

Original hand-painted Celia Thaxter pottery
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Original hand-painted Celia Thaxter pottery

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation.
Vaughn Cottage Museum and Library on Star Island
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Vaughn Cottage Museum and Library on Star Island

Image courtesy of Star Island Corporation

Most recently, Star Island Corporation received an NEH Preservation Assistance Grant (PAG) that will allow staff to continue and finish the Vaughn Cottage Preservation Project in 2017. With PAG funds, Star Island will purchase preservation supplies including a foot candle meter, a textile vacuum attachment and screening, a storage platform and stanchions for Celia Thaxter’s writing desk and chair, and reframing materials for visual art in the museum. With grant funds, Jenna Bossert, now a graduate student at Syracuse University, as well as Barbara Moore, will return to the island this summer.  Museum Manager Ally Miner commented: “Thanks to the opportunity IMLS and NEH have given…with specialists like Barbara and Jenna, we will be able to work further towards accomplishing our mission and vision…”

 

In every state, NEH supports organizations that preserve humanities collections.  Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions (PAGs) fund projects that help safeguard photographs, letters, documents, prints, moving images, sound recordings, maps, drawings, artworks, textiles, furniture, and artifacts, making them available for future generations.  These collections help researchers, educators, and members of the public better understand the complex stories of the various cities, towns, and tribal groups that make up our nation.

Since 2000, NEH has made nearly 2,000 Preservation Assistance Grants to small and mid-sized organizations to preserve and care for their humanities collections.  In all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, PAG awards have funded preservation assessments, purchase of shelving, environmental monitoring equipment, and preservation supplies, and training for staff.  Organizations in all states and U.S. territories are eligible to apply, and the program encourages applications from those new to NEH.  The next application deadline Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions is May 2, 2017.  If you have any questions about this grant program, please contact us at preservation@neh.gov or 202-606-8570.  

Funding information

The Star Island Corporation received NEH support through Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, PG-233623-16.