Mysteries and revelations at a Cape museum

A mourning wreath at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. –ELLEN ALBANESE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

DENNIS — The lacy floral wreath is stunning and slightly creepy. The delicate petals, jewel-like buds, and swirling tendrils are made of human hair, believed to have been collected from members of a single family in the 1880s. Known as mourning wreaths, these decorations were often made as a remembrance of a deceased loved one.

The wreath, from the Atwood House & Museum in Chatham, is one of more than 50 artifacts from 36 art, science, and history organizations on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket that make up an intriguing exhibit at the Cape Cod Museum of Art this fall. In “Mysteries & Revelations,’’ artifacts, paintings, objects, and curiosities reveal fascinating facts about the Cape’s past and open a window into how museums use such items to tell the story of a place. Organized by museum director Edith (Deede) Tonelli, the exhibit addresses the issue of “Truth & Trust: Museums in a Polarized Society,’’ the theme for this year’s New England Museum Association conference, which takes place in Falmouth in October.


Tonelli said she wanted to highlight the role of museums, “which is to uncover the information and stories behind the objects that we have,’’ and also to introduce conference participants to the richness and variety of museums on Cape Cod and the Islands.

The artifacts run the gamut from the aesthetic (a shimmering waterfront painting that was stolen from Provincetown and found in Tucson, Ariz.) to the mundane (a work boot from the late 17th century found stuffed in a wall at Wing Fort in East Sandwich to trick spirits trying to come down the chimney) to the heart-breaking (an iron spiked dog collar used on slaves). The largest item is a 100-year-old carousel giraffe from Heritage Museums and Gardens that was discovered to still have its original coat of paint, and the smallest is a thumbnail-size piece of gold that was part of an elaborate 1898 scam promising to extract gold from seawater. The oldest is a 12,000-year-old mammoth tooth unearthed during excavation of the Cape Cod Canal.

The artifacts are grouped by five themes, said guest curator Amanda Wastrom. “Mysteries’’ asks museumgoers to help fill in the gaps in information about certain artifacts or people, such as Thomas Eastwood, an artist whose work is in the museum’s collection but about whom little is known. On display in the “Revelations’’ section is a silver “coffin spoon’’ found hanging in the parlor of the Josiah Dennis Manse Museum. Inscribed on the back “From Mrs. Jane Dennis to Rev. Nathan Stone, 1767,’’ it reveals a funerary practice in which someone who was dying would make a gift to a caregiver who had provided physical or spiritual care, Wastrom explained.


In a section on Cape Cod “Legends,’’ visitors will find a small cowhide trunk said to have been aboard the Nantucket whaleship Essex. But the fact that the trunk shows no water damage suggests this is indeed a legend. “Trash or Treasure’’ features items that were scavenged or washed ashore, such as a tin box with a full bottle of bootleg whiskey inside that surfaced on a Yarmouth Port beach in 1925. The hair wreath is included in a “Believe It or Not’’ display of artifacts, along with a large quilt a Sandwich woman reportedly made with her toes.

“Mysteries & Revelations’’ runs through Nov. 26.


60 Hope Lane, Dennis, 508-385-4477,


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