I can’t quite explain my current mania for whaling museums. I find whaling to be brutish and unnecessary, but perhaps it is due to my long-standing admiration for Moby Dick and my tendency to go super deep in subjects that interest me. In any case, following my previously chronicled visit to the fabulous Nantucket Whaling Museum, I heard a few raves about the one in New Bedford. Since I was traveling in neighboring Rhode Island, I figured I’d head over. Well, I wasn’t disappointed in the least. There isn’t really a point to saying whether one is better than the other because despite the common theme, there is quite a lot to differentiate the two collections to make both well-worth visiting. NB features not one but four complete skeletons of whales: a blue (!!), a humpback, a right, and, of course, a sperm whale. It also has a whaleboat but also a scale model of the forecastle cabin and deck as well as a marvelous half-scale whaling ship. New Bedford eclipsed Nantucket in the 1840s roughly and the displays reflect this emphasis on the mid- to late-19th C whaling industry. There is a small but very well-documented painting collection that even includes some 18c and 19c Japanese prints including one from Shigenobu.
I spent over 3 hours enjoying all the rooms and displays. While I was looking at the forecastle exhibit, an older gentleman from the museum staff came up to me and started explaining loads of stuff. He had loads of stories about the construction of the boat model of the Lagoda and various interesting figures. For example, since New Bedford was also a Quaker town like Nantucket, they would not allow sculptures of women on the bows of the ships. Instead, they used scrolls and such like. For the ship model, they contracted Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain (and according to wikipedia, a KKK member and activist) to do the scrolls for the bow. He also pointed me to the New Bedford Bethel across the street from the Museum where the famous speeches in chapters 8 and 9 of Moby Dick were orated.
Apparently, the whale podium was NOT originally in the church as described by Melville, so after massive tourist demand, the church caved and installed a sort of ship’s bow in the pulpit. It was not overly convincing IMHO. Nonetheless, the tablets noting the deaths of sailors were moving: so-and-so 17y lost at sea, and so forth. It was impressive to see the names of so many lost souls. This was such a brutal business and the sea such a dangerous place that death was commonplace.
In the museum, there was a chalkboard that was from the 1930s just as the last whaling vessels were returning from their missions and being sold off. What was striking about it was that of the 25 boats mentioned, 5 were noted as LOST. To me, that seemed like a high percentage as recent as 80 years ago.
I have been wondering why I have put so much time and intellectual energy into whaling because in general, I am opposed to it. I believe that I wanted to more fully appreciate the intensity of Melville’s account and feel the terror of Queequeg and Ismael and the rage of Ahab. I read In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick for the Essex background of the story that the old-time had told me at the Nantucket museum. Unfortunately, I didn’t immediately note the name of the book that the gentleman from New Bedford had mentioned in his various accounts.
I completely caved when I noticed the Moby Dick version published by California Press. It is in a courier-style font with wonderful woodcut illustrations. I can’t wait to crack it open and explore Melville’s universe again – this time having a lot more background on whales and whaling.
If I can make one constructive criticism about the New Bedford Whaling Museum, I’d say that the films are not incredibly interesting. The first one about whaling was inferior by far to the one that was shown at the Nantucket museum and we learn precious little about whaling. The second one was about modern fisherman from New Bedford. I didn’t quite understand what the context of this second movie because there was nothing about whaling in it and I didn’t understand the comments about regulations and so forth. It was a bit confusing and I hope that sometime they will supply a little context.
So, for those passionate Moby Dick fans, I can highly recommend both the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Nantucket Whaling Museum as being extremely informational and interesting.