By Dawn Watson
When people visit a museum, they tend to be drawn straightaway to the big, splashy exhibits. The smaller objects on display are frequently overlooked altogether.
But as they say, the devil is in the detail. Sometimes it’s the minutiae that yields the greatest understanding, and the most complete picture, according to Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum’s Collections Manager Richard Doctorow.
“The big stuff, sure, everybody looks at that,” he says of a typical museum visit. “But what about all those smaller items that we pass by without a glance? The ones that, when viewed together, tell the entire sweep of history? When do they get their day in the sun?”
It’s that thought that led him to curating “Fifty Small Things,” an exhibit of 50 objects that are small in size but big on history, which opens on Friday, August 26, and will remain on view through October 31. Carefully curated from the museum’s permanent collection, the items—tiny enough to fit into the palm of one’s hand though substantial enough to tell a significant story about Sag Harbor’ history—document a span of time from 1700 to 1945.
Some of those objects, such as an old arrowhead; an inkwell and scrimshaw tooth from the 19th century; and circa-1800s items, including a miter plane, toy book, hand-cut nails from Huntting House, and fractional currency, will featured in the selection on view. Each of the items, on their own, could lead the viewer “down a rabbit hole” of interest and exploration, says Mr. Doctorow. Presented together, they make a considerable impact when given proper due.
“History is all around us, even in the smallest things, such as the stuff of real life. The collectibles, the ephemera, the thrown-out objects, the pamphlets and ticket stubs,” says Mr. Doctorow. “Taken together, they tell a story about the daily doings here in Sag Harbor.”
But history doesn’t just remain in the artifacts of the past, waiting to be dusted off and put on display, says Bob Weinstein, the newly elected Vice President of the museum’s Board of Directors. It’s also in the here and now, subtly influencing and impacting.
“History doesn’t just exist in the vitrines,” he says, referring to the glass or plexi covers that go on display cases. “It’s all around us. Especially here in Sag Harbor, where there are remnants of the past everywhere. These things get under our skin and become a part of us. They tell us a rich history, even if we might not be paying total attention.”
Contextualizing the “Fifty Small Things” exhibition for today’s times is a companion selection of Mr. Weinstein’s iPhone photographs of historic places and things in Sag Harbor. The accompanying exhibit, “Take a Closer Look,” invites the viewer to see how history plays a crucial role in contemporary existence.
The pictures included in “Take a Closer Look” will span the gamut of instantly recognizable images to more detailed “guessing game”-type photos, he reports. Even village novices should expect to sight easily identifiable imagery from the Whaler’s Church, the Sag Harbor Cinema and Mashashimuet Park. Some of the more detailed close-ups could stump the most learned of Sag Harbor history buffs, he adds. The fun will be in figuring out just exactly where each place was shot and how it connects to the village as a whole.
“I’m constantly stopping to look at my surroundings here in the village. How the light hits a cornice, carving or embellishment. And I know that I’m not the only one who notices these details,” says Mr. Weinstein. “I hope that they will make people pause and take a closer look.”
The goal of the companion shows is to do exactly what the museum’s mission statement states, reports Mr. Weinstein. By combining the objects highlighting the village’s past with images of Sag Harbor today, the exhibitions are meant to create an understanding and appreciation of history and how it’s still a part of our everyday lives.
“The mission of the museum is to ‘preserve, interpret and promote the culture … and put Sag Harbor’s past and present into context,’ which I think these two exhibits do,” he says.
Mr. Doctorow wholeheartedly agrees.
“History doesn’t stop in the past. It’s right here with us today,” he says. “All you need to do is take a closer look at the small things.”
The dual exhibits of “Fifty Small Things” and “Take a Closer Look” will open with a reception on Friday, August 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. The exhibitions will remain on view through October 31. For additional information, visit www.sagharborwhalingmuseum.org.