Published: November 23, 2010
It will be all hands on deck at the New Bedford Whaling Museum come the weekend of January 7. The museum’s annual Moby-Dick Marathon draws Herman Melville fans from afar for a nonstop, communal reading of the ultimate tale of man versus beast.
Visitors to the museum’s quaint neighborhood of clapboard houses and cobblestone streets find little changed since Melville first shipped out of New Bedford aboard the whale ship Acushnet in 1841, embarking on the 18-month voyage that culminated in what some regard as the great American novel.
What has changed is the 107-year-old New Bedford Whaling Museum. Over the past year, it completed three ambitious renovation and installation projects, enhancing its display of an outstanding collection of art, artifacts and manuscripts numbering more than 750,000 objects. It added 2,000 square feet of exhibit space.
Over time, the institution will be transformed from what president James Russell calls “a temple to Yankee whaling” to a cosmopolitan center for the study of New Bedford as a multicultural melting pot and economic powerhouse, past and, if community leaders have their way, future.
“We are the largest museum in the United States devoted to the American whaling industry and its greatest port. We house the most extensive collection of art, artifacts and manuscripts pertaining to American whaling in the age of sailing,” says Russell, who this fall presided over the opening of the museum’s latest addition, the Azorean Whaleman Gallery, honoring immigrants from the Portuguese islands and their contributions to the city’s maritime heritage.
Russell, who was born in Ireland and educated at Harvard, joined the New Bedford Whaling Museum two years ago after sharpening his credentials at the Attleboro Museum of Art in Massachusetts and the Herreshoff Marine Museum and the International Yacht Restoration School, both in Rhode Island.
“New Bedford Whaling Museum had a choice to make: go into its shell or do its part as a leadership institution in the city. We took the latter approach, which was to aggressively stare down the recession,” said Russell, whose arrival coincided with the collapse of the financial markets and the museum’s simultaneous renewal.
In June, the institution rededicated the Wattles Family Gallery of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. While best known for whaling artifacts, the museum, through its Old Dartmouth Historical Society arm, also collects fine and decorative arts associated with New Bedford and the surrounding Massachusetts towns of Fairhaven, Acushnet, Dartmouth and Westport.
The collections are particularly rich in Nineteenth Century marine and landscape paintings by area artists. The canvases, which range from Albert Bierstadt’s 1858 historical view, “Bartholomew Gosnold at Cuttyhunk,” a gift to the museum in 1904, to a proto-abstract landscape by Albert Pinkham Ryder, a major purchase for the museum in 2005, include examples by Lemuel D. Eldred, Robert Swain Gifford, Dwight W. Tryon and William Allen Wall.
They join dramatic Arctic views by William Bradford in the remodeled space that began life in the 1880s as the National Bank of Commerce before housing the fledgling Old Dartmouth Historical Society. The society’s original 1906 harpoon and sail sign hangs above the old door leading to a main gallery and the former bank directors’ room, still fitted with its original mahogany wainscoting and carved fireplaces.
The new Wattles Family Gallery added nearly 2,000 square feet to the museum complex, which now encompasses a city block in the center of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, an important catalyst to the area’s economic and cultural rebirth. Established in 1996, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park encompasses 34 acres over 13 city blocks. Beyond the New Bedford Whaling Museum, its attractions include Seaman’s Bethel, the former Whaleman’s Chapel described in Moby-Dick ; the schooner Ernestina ; and the Greek Revival Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum.
New Bedford Whaling Museum’s biggest recent project has been its $4 million renovation of its 1916 Bourne Building. The two-story, barrel-vaulted gallery houses the world’s largest ship model, a half-scale recreation of the 1826 whale ship Lagoda , completed on site in 1916 with funds donated by Emily Bourne in memory of her father, whaling merchant Jonathan Bourne Jr. The project, completed in October 2010, brought the facility into the present century, updating lighting, climate control and security systems, without diminishing its old-fashioned charm.
“The Lagoda is an interesting artifact in that you can look at in so many ways,” says the museum’s new vice president of collections and exhibitions, Dr Gregory Jay Galer, who regards the replica as a tribute to the whaling city’s triumphant past and a memorial to its subsequent decline.
The opening of the Azorean Whaleman Gallery, which encircles the Lagoda in the Bourne Building’s mezzanine, set the stage for the kind of interdisciplinary investigations that are the specialty of Galer, an expert in industrial history who trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I am here to make the story bigger; to make connections between diverse people, groups and influences. How did the whaling community of New Bedford become a center for innovation, technology and finance? The whaling voyage is just one piece of the story. The other piece is social, cultural, corporate and mercantile. It is a rich story,” says the curator.
“We have made great strides with the Azorean Whaleman Gallery,” agrees Russell, envisioning a series of installations circling the perimeter of the Bourne Building in symbolic echo of New Bedford’s circumnavigation of the globe. Future installations will transport visitors to Cape Verde, the Pacific Rim and beyond.
Change notwithstanding, the New Bedford Whaling Museum remains one of the best places to see what antiquarians call “art for the American market,” a satisfying mix of domestically made objects, plus English, Continental and Chinese wares that might have graced New England homes.
A darkened gallery with dramatically backlit cases displays colorful art glass made locally between 1870 and 1950. The major styles of Mount Washington, Blackmer, Pairpoint, Smith Brothers and Gunderson are represented.
Ceramics from the permanent collection adjoin the glass gallery. Ancient Roman and Middle Eastern pieces join so-called Liverpool pottery, popular English creamware decorated for the American market with nautical and patriotic motifs.
To its strong holdings of regional American art from the Eighteenth Century to the present, the museum adds a significant collection of Dutch painting, prints and decorative arts, a legacy of the Netherlands’ pioneering role in the whaling trade. The British contribution to whaling is depicted in paintings, prints, illustrated shipboard journals and scrimshaw.
The whaling theme continues in “Classic Whaling Prints,” scheduled to remain on view through 2010. This outstanding survey show organized by the museum’s senior curator, Dr Stuart M. Frank, covers the entire oeuvre with Seventeenth through Twentieth Century prints by Dutch, French, English, American and Japanese printmakers and includes some of the best known and most influential examples of the genre.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is widely known for scrimshaw, a reputation that has been burnished by Frank, the energetic author of several classic references, including Dictionary of Scrimshaw Artists . Frank’s current projects include a catalog of the museum’s own scrimshaw collection, intended to coincide with a new permanent exhibit set to open in spring 2012.
“We have built an international community of scholars and collectors in the past 25 years,” says Frank, who organizes the museum’s annual Scrimshaw Weekend, next planned for May 13‱5. A one-day scrimshaw workshop, offering a basic overview of the field with tips for collectors, is set for January 29.
As an outgrowth of his ongoing research, Frank organized a forensics laboratory that authenticates more than 500 pieces of scrimshaw annually. He refers questions on value and sales advice to reputable appraisers, dealers and auctioneers with expertise in the scrimshaw field.
“We don’t charge for the service, but require that the sender pay for insurance and postage,” says Frank, who invites readers with antique scrimshaw to be in touch.
We first met museum president James Russell at an August maritime sale, where the museum successfully bid on several Azorean photographs. The New Bedford Whaling Museum has the foremost whaling library in the world, including 2,300 logbooks and journals. It frequently adds to its holdings, some of which can be searched online. Its digital references include a “Fakeshaw” database of scrimshaw fakes and an inventory of its logbooks and journals. Searchable by date, ship, master, home port, and destination, the logbooks and journals provide scientists with invaluable first-hand accounts of the migratory habits of whales prior to the Twentieth Century.
Last we spoke, Russell was meeting with architects to discuss the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s long-held dream of moving its research library, now several blocks away, to the museum’s main campus on Johnny Cake Hill, making it more accessible to scholars who travel to from around the world to use the international research facility. Through this enterprising institution, New Bedford is once again taking its place on the world stage.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is at 18 Johnny Cake Lane. For information, www.whalingmuseum.org or 508-997-0046.
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