Sign up for our Newsletter

Executive director of the Shelter Island Historical Society, Nanette Lawrenson. (Photo credit: Eleanor P, Labrozzi)

There’s something about Shelter Island. 

Eastern Long Island is full of beautiful, stunning places well worth your appreciation and attention, but Shelter Island? It draws you in, floats you over and holds you close. This is how it’s been for hundreds and hundreds of years —longer, really, but the archives of the Shelter Island Historical Society only go back so far, says Nanette Lawrenson. Though she doesn’t doubt the island’s long-time gravitational pull for a second.

It’s what brought her parents here in the 1950s, and where she spent many summers as a kid doing what kids do on the island: biking, swimming, clamming and taking in a multitude of ever-beautiful sunsets off Crescent Beach. Lawrenson made her way in the world, winding up in Palm Beach, FL, for a spell as the vice president of Tiffany & Co., but Shelter Island always called her back, until one day when she just stopped leaving; a full-time offer nudging her to realize that her history here was informing her future… in history. 

The Shelter Island Historical Society was formed in 1922, but didn’t move into its current location at 16 South Ferry Road until the 1960s. For the last 12 years, Lawrenson has been at its helm as the executive director of the not-for-profit, which operates out of the historic Havens House, built in 1743 by William Havens.

The Shelter Island History Center is housed in the historic Haven’s House on South Ferry Road. (Photo credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

Twelve years isn’t a short stint for any job, but in the scope of the world it’s a drop in the bucket. Still, in that short period, Lawrenson has accomplished a lot, shepherding the organization through a multitude of changes, milestones and growth — overseeing the much-needed and very ambitious expansion on the History Center designed by architect Bill Pedersen, creating new and constant sources of fundraising, overseeing a vibrant, community-focused farmers’ market and perhaps her most favorite aspect of her job: finding ways to open the eyes of people of all ages to the way our history isn’t just the dusty past.

“We believe in helping people understand history through the visual arts and performing arts and sharing history for their future. History centers are not just about items and information from the 1600s and 1700s,” says Lawrenson. “It’s also about what we’re doing today that will be informative, impactful and interesting  in 30, 50, 100 years from now! That’s probably one of most important pieces:  What are we doing today that’s so important that we need to carry it forward so we can share it in the future?”

Under Lawrenson’s caring, watchful eye, she and her staff of four employees (two full-time and a duo of contracted part-timers), dozens of volunteers throughout the year and, in the summer, three paid interns, have achieved that and so much more. The island may be petite, but SIHS packs in a lot; you might say it’s a model of what an archival historical society and history center can, and should, be. 

In May 2022, SIHS’s annual exhibit, “Once on This Island” featured the work of prominent artists with attachments to Shelter Island, like these works by artist John Chamberlain. (Photo credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

“History is everything. The word itself perhaps doesn’t have such an exciting meaning to people, but it is exciting and it’s important because we learn from what took place in the past,” she says. “And if we do, maybe we won’t repeat the wrongs. Learning about history leads to innovation and design and the development of towns. That’s why it’s important.” 

First and foremost, SIHS preserves the island’s past, but it does so from a multitude of diverse entry points. At its most obvious, it does this via its archives of over 100,000 documents, which can be anything from a book to letters and ledgers to old greeting cards from bygone days. 

“It’s small in comparison to the Smithsonian or even the New York Historical Society, but what we have is a fascinating collection of Shelter Island information, stories, photos and objects,” says Lawrenson. “Shelter Island is unique in that the things that are here never left; families hold onto their photos, their information, their bibles. Unlike other places where there are a number of towns or villages or even cities where you have a lot of information from the surrounding areas, ours is about Shelter Island only. And there’s so much!”

The SIHS team also celebrates the past via programs that don’t just sit in the rocking chair of years gone by. There’s the Living History Project, launched in 2017 to document on video the everyday lives of Shelter Island residents —  because, truly, life on an island presents some different challenges, joys and facets than that of the main land. There’s the interactive Digital Tapestry, telling the story of life on the island during the American Revolution, but doing it with a modern twist via a QR code snapped with your cell phone. There’s the oral history project, Voices from the Vault, a treasure trove of long-time island residents who’ve passed on, interviewed and recorded to keep their stories and voices alive and well. 

Lawrenson has been the guiding hand a the SIHS for 12 years. (Photo credit: Eleanore P. Labrozzi)

“The History Center is not stagnant,” she says. “We work hard and we have a wonderful archivist in Kaitlin Ketcham as well as our wonderful curator, Lucas Deupree,” the latter of whom comes up with the annual History Center exhibit. This year, Deupree focused on the paths not taken, digging up plans and proposals for projects on the island that were never to be.

“We’re going to have a major exhibit this year that talks about the developments that did not happen – beautiful old maps of what would have potentially been. Housing developments on Ram Island, Nostrand Parkway and in Mashomack. The bridge that never happened in the 1930s – that will be this year’s theme for our major exhibit,” Lawrenson says.

And then there’s perhaps her favorite part: the annual play, which involves over 40 volunteers as actors and behind scenes crew, with local writer and musician Lisa Shaw as the anchor to it all.

“She comes into the archives and does research for a couple months and chooses a topic. Then she writes the play, writes the music and auditions various people to perform it, and rehearses and trains them,” Lawrenson says. “It’s this wonderful way of presenting the historical stories of Shelter Island through performing arts. We’re so grateful to her!” 

This year the play will be performed the weekend of July 19. But there are miles to go, and a multitude of projects in the hopper, before that summer date. And for Lawrenson, it’s all part of the story of a lifetime.

“One of the first things I realized, within the first month I was in this job, was that everything about Shelter Island history is connected to national and often international things that have taken place. I was blown away by that,” she says. “Shelter Island has tentacles that go out to everything that’s happened. The best part of my day is walking in here every morning.”