New Bedford Famous Spot Highlighted

Rediscover the Whaling Museum
Day trip: Explore a Gem in Your Own Backyard
By Micheal Medeiros Standard-Times Staff Writer

The bones of a right whale killed when it struck a ship are being assembled at the museum. The whale, along with the skeleton of its fetus, are expected to go on display in July. Michael Medeiros /The Standard-Times

If skyrocketing gas prices have you rethinking your summer travel plans, why not explore a gem in your own back yard?
Take the New Bedford Whaling Museum, for example.
“We’re the world’s premier whaling museum,” said Karen Allen, director of programs and operations, who is hoping the high cost of travel will get more local visitors to stop in this year.
“They should rediscover us because we have all new exhibits and events taking place this summer.”
Today’s museum is a cohesive blend of the traditional and the modern. When dramatic renovations first began over a decade ago, the intent wasn’t to replace the rustic character of the original building at 18 Johnny Cake Hill, but to complement it and help bring the museum into the 21st century.
Telling the story of the whaling industry that made New Bedford one of the richest cities in the world in the mid-1800s remains largely a matter of exposing people to the artifacts and documents that preserve the era, but accomplishing that is much more interactive today than even a decade ago.
“We really have something for everyone. It doesn’t really matter what age people are,” said Ms. Allen.
That’s apparent almost immediately after entering the building. One of the museum’s prized possessions is the 65-foot blue whale skeleton known as KOBO (King of the Blue Ocean), and it’s one of the first things visitors see when they walk in. Whether viewed from below in the Jacobs Family Gallery or at eye level on the second-story balcony, the mammoth creature grabs the attention of young and old. It’s a life-sized lesson in just what whalers confronted when they set out to sea for their long, and often deadly, whaling voyages.
“You get a sense of just how frightening and difficult this job really was,” said Madelyn Shaw, vice president for collections and exhibitions.
Ms. Shaw walks a short distance from KOBO to the Lagoda, the half-scale replica of a whaling bark that was constructed inside the Whaling Museum between 1915 and 1916. It’s the largest ship model in the world.
The Lagoda is surrounded by the smaller whale boats that the crews used to hunt down a whale, as well as the harpoons, tools and other equipment necessary to ply their trade. Along the west wall of the room is a mural depicting a whale hunt and, based on the image, it’s clear why whaling took so many lives over the years.
“The Lagoda is 89 feet long from tip to toe basically, and you could get a whale that was about that big,” Ms. Shaw said, adding, “Kids and adults get an understanding that this was not an easy life.”
In the past few years, the museum has added several skeletons of whales, including humpback, sperm and the gigantic blue, which either washed ashore or were accidentally killed at sea. Currently, Community Science Programs Manager Bob Rocha is overseeing the preparation of a female right whale and her 10-month-old fetus for display, which should be ready mid-July. The public can view the assembly of the skeleton as it takes place behind the Lagoda.
“She was struck and killed in November of 2004,” Mr. Rocha said of the whale. “A ship hit her and cut off her left fluke, the whole left half of her tail, and she bled to death. She was 10 months pregnant, heading down towards the waters of Florida and Georgia to give birth to that first calf.”
When the whale washed ashore, the Whaling Museum got a call asking if they wanted a right whale skeleton.
“And we said, ‘Sure,’ ” Mr. Rocha said. “That began the process of getting it, cleaning it, composting it, power-washing it, bleaching it in the sun and then getting it in to get it articulated.”
Mr. Rocha believes that, when complete, this will be the first adult and fetal whale skeletons on display in the United States.
One of the new exhibits up until the end of June is “Industry and Nature Collide: Photographs of Modern Shore Whaling Stations.” It chronicles the more mechanized 20th-century whaling stations that have now fallen into disuse near the shores of Labrador in Canada and the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, as seen through the lenses of photographers Henry W. Kendall and Nicholas Whitman.
Ms. Shaw says that, while there was a romantic aura around the wooden whale ships and the man vs. whale ethic of the golden age of whaling, the modern industry exhibited little of that charm.
“This is not glamour. This is mass killing, mass harvesting in a much different way than 19th-century whaling was,” she said.
The shore whaling stations in the photographed areas were no longer in business by the time the photographers arrived, and the two chronicled the wreckage left behind as part of a larger research project in the area.
“There is quite a lot of industrial debris still there. There is no worth to it. People have taken all the saleable scrap metal away, and the rest is just rusting in the water,” said Ms. Shaw.
(The International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, and most countries have respected the regulation. However, Norway, Iceland and Japan have circumvented the moratorium. The Nordic nations resumed exporting whale meat to Japan earlier this week for the first time in more than a decade.)
Another exhibit is “Needle/Work — Art, Craft and Industry in a Port City,” which looks back on Greater New Bedford’s textile heritage. From home-sewn quilts made at the turn of the 20th century to Joseph Abboud suits manufactured in one of the city’s most successful mills, the display doesn’t deal directly with whaling. But as Mr. Rocha and Ms. Shaw note, whaling did play a strong hand in the textile industry here.
“In many ways, whaling was one of the first global industries. Guys who made money from whaling used it to fund other industries, like textiles,” Mr. Rocha explained.
Ms. Shaw pointed out that the specialized schools that taught elaborate needlework skills were normally reserved for daughters from wealthy families, but the wealth that poured in from whaling in New Bedford altered that model in the mid to late 1800s.
“Because of whaling in New Bedford, middle class (families) often had extra money to afford sending girls to school,” she said. “There were a lot of different schools, from Fairhaven to Dartmouth.”
New Bedford’s glassmaking industry, which was strong from the 1800s into the 1950s, is also the subject of a permanent exhibit at the museum.
In surrounding rooms are displays more directly related to whaling. Paintings of whaling captains, their families and their ships, scrimshaw, harpoons, photographs, seamen’s knots and numerous other artifacts and documents fill display cases and hang along walls.
A full-scale replica of a forecastle (fo’c’sle), which is where whaling ship crews slept and spent their free time, is open for exploring as well.
“Kids can raise and lower the sails … and get an idea of the coordination and strength it took to run a square-rig ship, which was no small feat,” Ms. Shaw said.
Taken as a whole, Ms. Allen says, the museum is an opportunity to explore an often overlooked part of American history. The combination of interactive displays and traditional exhibits, she believes, will help families learn more about whaling together.
“This is not a museum where you have to be silent. We’re trying to get people to engage in conversation with their kids,” said Ms. Allen.
Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for students and seniors and $6 for children ages 6 to 14. There is no charge for children under 6 years old. For directions or more information, visit or call (508)997-0046.
June 08, 2008 6:00 AM
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