The Museum on the Hill: Inside the Hingham Heritage Museum

A renovated landmark showcases Hingham’s storied past

By Laura DeSisto | Photography by Derrick Zellmann

Pictured above: Whimsical figurines by Hingham woodcarver Tim Jumper (above) are displayed in the Hingham Heritage Museum gift shop while the galleries display carefully preserved historical artifacts. 

For nearly 200 years the Old Derby Academy building has enjoyed a rather imposing and prominent position atop a steep hill in Hingham’s historic square. Constructed in 1818 to house Derby Academy, one of the nation’s oldest co-educational schools, the building was purchased by the Hingham Historical Society in 1966 after the academy built their new campus just outside of the downtown area.

“Old Derby” has served as the historical society headquarters since the ‘60s, but the building had fallen into disrepair and some people, particularly the society’s first executive director, Suzanne Buchanan, had a vision for a much-improved building that would include a museum. Thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers and the generosity of board members and other donors, the newly minted Hingham Heritage Museum has emerged from a two-year-long multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion of the Old Derby building.

Well-known local architect and Hingham resident Sally Weston donated her firm’s services for the restoration and design of an addition that nearly doubled the size of the museum to just about 9,400 square feet. Many others pitched in on a pro bono basis, including Peter Comrack, Mike Studley, Sean Papich and project manager Mark Cullings.

While the first-floor entrance serves as a gift shop and welcome area, the additional square footage on the second and third floors is where the much-needed exhibit and storage space now showcases the society’s extensive collection.

“The society has a collection of nearly 15,000 artifacts that were previously stored off site,” says the museum’s new executive director, Alexandra Rollins. “This museum will allow us to exhibit and safely house this historically significant collection.”

Rollins has an impressive resume as a curator, having worked in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms in the United States Department of State and the Dietrich Foundations, the largest privately owned art collection in the country. Her background has been instrumental in helping the society determine which items belong in the new “Kelley Gallery” – a fully climate-controlled museum-quality space that features a permanent collection of the museum’s most important pieces.

On a recent visit to the gallery, Rollins points out a “tall case clock” made in 1750 by clockmaker Samuel Bagnall of Boston. Once owned by Ebenezer Gay, the Unitarian minister of Hingham’s Old Ship Church from 1717-1787, the clock was an heirloom handed down through many generations of the Gay family before being donated to the society.

Handmade wooden buckets and dollhouse furniture are part of the Hingham Heritage Museum’s current exhibition.

“This beautiful clock is an extraordinary piece of Boston and Hingham history,” notes Rollins. “It deserves to be preserved and shared.” The museum’s second floor also houses an exhibition area dubbed “The Ballroom” – where its debut exhibit “Boxes, Buckets and Toys” (made in Hingham) is currently on display.

“For nearly two centuries, beginning around 1635, woodenware built Hingham’s economy,” says Rollins. “We are lucky to have a world class collection here.”

The exhibit features wooden tubs, pails, boxes and more unusual objects like a “dumb betty” – a rudimentary hand-operated washing machine that was common in Hingham households in the 1700s.

In addition to these utilitarian items, a few items showcase the work of master craftsmen like William Tower, who, in 1867, assembled a cedar bucket out of an astonishing 47,568 individual pieces. Also featured is a collection of handcrafted wooden dollhouse furniture, toys and miniature boxes that were popular souvenirs for wealthy Bostonians who began to vacation in Hingham in the mid-1800s.

As factories began manufacturing machine-made, full-size buckets at lower prices, local craftsmen turned their attention to the miniatures with the encouragement of the Society of Arts and Crafts. The flourishing woodenware industry in Hingham earned it the nickname “Bucket Town.” A book by the same name authored by Derin T. Bray can be purchased in the society gift shop.

“Dumb betty” a primitive washing machine that was common in Hingham households in the 1700s.

The historical society’s extensive archives are housed in the building’s third floor “Academy Reading Room,” donated by Hingham residents Andrea and Ed Gillis.

In this space, visitors can sit at long wooden tables and research the archives by appointment. Registrar Michael Achille, whose job is to catalogue every single item, assists with research on request.

The third floor also features climate-controlled spaces that contain the society’s large costume and textile collection that includes Civil War uniforms as well as textiles that date back to the 1600s.

The renovated building will continue to serve as the headquarters for the Hingham Historical Society, a non-profit organization that was formed in 1914 and is “dedicated to collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting the history of the town of Hingham, Massachusetts.”

The society organizes many community activities and events, including one of the oldest and longest-running historic house tours in the country. The historical society will hold its 93rd tour on October 1.

The group also owns and operates tours of the 1688 Old Ordinary, a home just outside the square that served as a stagecoach stop where travellers could get an “ordinary meal.” The Old Ordinary is set up as a house museum with many period artifacts such as kitchen utensils, bed linens, wooden toys and needlework samplers. On weekends during the month of November the society hosts “Candlelight Overcoat” tours of the Old Ordinary that give visitors perspective on cold New England winters with no central heat and electricity.

With a nearly 400-year history and a long list of notable residents including relatives of Abraham Lincoln, the town of Hingham has a past well worth preserving. The Hingham Heritage Museum will ensure that future generations will understand and appreciate their town’s rich history.

The Hingham Heritage Museum is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.; archive research is available by appointment. 

Alexandra Rollins, executive director at Hingham Heritage Museum

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