There was a dusty little museum we kids got carted off to in the town where I grew up.
When it rained five days in a row in the summer, when your mother couldn’t think of one more thing to do with you, it was off to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
It was smallish, but had cool stuff: model ships, incredible paintings of man versus whale (with both sides always seeming to get the raw end of the deal), a little room designed to mimic a home back in Pilgrim times.
And there was the Lagoda, touted as the largest ship model in the world, a half-size replica of a real whaling ship that you could board and explore. The Lagoda seemed to be every kid’s favorite part.
For me, though, it’s always been the museum’s scrimshaw collection.
Scrimshaw is a folk art, perhaps not originally American, but primarily so. It is the carving of and engraving on bone and ivory, mostly practiced by whalers on the teeth and bones of their catches. Back in the 1950s, I was entranced by the array on display at the Whaling Museum.
Fifty years later, I am in heaven, as my hometown’s former rainy-day kid catcher has blossomed into a world-class museum with the largest and finest scrimshaw collection on earth.
In the 1990s, things started changing for the Whaling Museum when Executive Director Ann Brengle came on board. She had a vision and a real sense of the importance of New Bedford’s deep and proud whaling history. Improvements included a lecture theater (used for its annual Sailor Series), new spaces for gatherings and exhibits, and a grand hall that boasts several enormous hanging whale skeletons.
Some years later, when the nearby Kendall Whaling Museum closed, its stellar scrimshaw collection was moved to New Bedford’s museum.
What struck me, and moved me -- even as a child -- is that this is an art born of longing. The town was full of houses with widow’s walks -- the small aerie above the roof line where whaling wives held vigil for their husbands’ returning ships.
For their part, the sailors faced stultifying boredom on trips that could last years, and used the bones and teeth of whales to tell their tales of the sea, or often craft something for loved ones.
Whale teeth were cut into with a knife, the etching filled in with India ink and wiped off; scenes often depict the whaler’s ship, a sailor’s struggle to harpoon a leviathan, or a portrait of the girl left behind.
Much of the scrimshaw artistry in the Whaling Museum tugs at the heart, a treasure trove of artifacts filled with longing and love.
Countless gifts for wives and girlfriends -- elaborate pie crimpers, yarn swifts, wooden and ivory jewelry boxes, letter openers, sewing tools, beautifully etched corset stays -- speak to a sailor’s loneliness and homesickness (and the lack of a home-cooked meal).
Even now, half a century after I first saw it, my favorite piece remains a young woman sitting demurely in a chair, her suitor, surely just home from a long voyage, on bended knee, proposing -- all intricately carved in whalebone.
The whalers carved for themselves as well, of course: elaborate toothpicks, watch hutches, and a breathtaking array of canes are on display. Every piece has someone’s life and story behind it. The Whaling Museum’s new permanent and beautifully curated scrimshaw collection does what all great art does -- lures you in, raises questions, tells a tale.
Though the scrimshaw is my particular obsession, the museum is full of the fantastic oddities that make it unique. The quartet of enormous whale skeletons -- one paired with her unborn calf -- are like a gigantic, complex anatomical puzzle.
The museum’s maritime paintings, prints, logbooks --and of course, scrimshaw -- make up the world’s foremost collection of whaling history.
Every January, I drive from New York to New Bedford, more than 400 miles round trip, to the Whaling Museum’s annual “Moby-Dick” Marathon, a 25-hour continuous reading of America’s greatest novel, whose opening chapters are set in New Bedford. For any Herman Melville aficionado this is a must, whether you come in person (highly recommended) or watch the live stream at www.whalingmuseum.org.
Read aloud, “Moby-Dick” is a brand-new experience no matter how many times you’ve read it, a seafaring yarn like no other, and the dedicated staff makes it come alive. Fans gather from all points of the compass to hear the famous opening words, “Call me Ishmael,” or take their turn to read for 10 minutes (that’s what I come for).
Local actors recreate scenes, the Lagoda plays its part, and the audience moves en masse across the street to hear Father Marple’s famed fire-and-brimstone speech in the original Seamen’s Bethel mentioned in the book. It’s an experience like no other.
“Lucem Diffundo” (We Light the World) was New Bedford’s motto back at the height of its whaling days when it was America’s wealthiest city. And though the need for whale oil to light our lamps has long since disappeared, the New Bedford Whaling Museum keeps an integral part of America’s history very much alive.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is at 18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, Massachusetts. Information: +1-508-997-0046; www.whalingmuseum.org
(Erin McHugh writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on drinking, Peter Rainer on movies.
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