Passage Maker - - Troubleshooter -

founded in 19P6, you might ex­pect to find the tra­di­tional new Eng­land his­tor­i­cal site—old, musty, a bit out of touch. If you’re trav­el­ing by land (as I was on a sunny Tues­day morn­ing in mid-May I, this feel­ing might be con­firmed when you en­ter your des­ti­na­tion into your phone’s gps and see that the mu­seum’s ad­dress is “18 Johnny Cake hill.” and when you exit 195 to route 18, you’ll pass a col­or­ful fleet of com­mer­cial fish­ing boats and then nav­i­gate a maze of nar­row cob­ble­stone streets and al­ley­ways be­fore a quick turn spits you into the his­toric down­town dis­trict. head­ing up to town on foot from the wa­ter­front also adds to this im­pres­sion. The new bed­ford whal­ing Mu­seum looks like you might imag­ine: an im­pos­ing brick build­ing on the hill. a cupola. a wind-vane in the shape of a whale.

but once you turn the cor­ner and see the front en­trance to the mu­seum, it’s clear there’s more go­ing on here than some ship repli­cas, whale skele­tons, and the world’s largest col­lec­tion of scrimshaw. (Though if you’re look­ing for any or all of those things—as I’ll ad­mit I was—you def­i­nitely won’t be dis­ap­pointed.

In many ways, the main en­trance—span­ning two dis­tinct build­ings—rep­re­sents the evo­lu­tion of the mu­seum it­self. on the right is the orig­i­nal build­ing, the na­tional bank of Com­merce, built in 188S and re­pur­posed as the first home of the old Dart­mouth his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety in 19P8. now the en­trance to the mu­seum gift shop, this mas­sive brick front fea­tures a clas­sic wooden carv­ing of a white whale, perched above a key­stone arch win­dow. on the left, the front of the new build­ing looks like a mod­ern li­brary or con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum. There’s a bright or­ange sculp­ture of a squid wrap­ping its ten­ta­cles around the sign. (Did you know that sperm whales eat gi­ant squid?

In ad­di­tion to the main build­ings, the mu­seum ex­hibits now also in­clude the ren­o­vated sea­men’s bethel and his­toric Mariners’ house across the street, re­cently re­opened in a part­ner­ship with the new bed­ford port so­ci­ety. and it’s all now part of the new bed­ford whal­ing na­tional his­tor­i­cal park, es­tab­lished with the mu­seum’s help in 1996.


like many his­tor­i­cal mu­se­ums to­day, the new bed­ford whal­ing Mu­seum walks this line be­tween old and new, pre­serv­ing as­pects of the tra­di­tional his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive while find­ing mod­ern cul­tural rel­e­vance to old sto­ries.

of course they are ap­pro­pri­ately ob­sessed with her­man Melville—they have a ro­tat­ing gallery for Melvil­lian ex­hibits. (when I visit, the ex­hibit is fo­cused on Cap­tain ahab’s nav­i­ga­tion tech­niques. I The mu­seum hosts an an­nual Moby-Dick read­ing marathon. (I’m more sur­prised to find out that it only takes about 26 hours to read the en­tire book aloud than I am to hear that peo­ple fly in from all over the world for the event. I and the sea­men’s bethel has a small but prom­i­nent sign iden­ti­fy­ing a bench in the last row as “her­man Melville’s pew.”

The new vis­i­tors’ en­trance, with its or­ange squid and mod­ern glass, leads into a two-story atrium with a ro­tat­ing ex­hibit. at the time of my visit the ground floor is show­cas­ing boats de­signed by C. ray­mond hunt and w. star­ling burgess, in­clud­ing the iconic bos­ton whaler. In fact, with a shiny whaler on dis­play along­side a pristinely re­stored 11P se­ries sloop greet­ing me upon en­try, it might have felt more like a boat show than a mu­seum ex­hibit, had it not been for the three gi­ant whale skele­tons hang­ing from the ceil­ing.


I meet Tina Malott, the mu­seum’s mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor who has ar­ranged my tour, and su­san grosart, one of the mu­seum’s ex­pert do­cents, be­neath these whale skele­tons. su­san im­me­di­ately jumps into tour guide mode, talk­ing about the three baleen whales above our heads.

There’s a hump­back whale, a blue (66 feet long! I, and a once-preg­nant north at­lantic right whale, killed by a con­tainer ship just a month be­fore her fe­tus would have been born. The blue whale was also hit by a ship. They’re not sure how the hump­back died, though it was miss­ing its tongue, which hints to a killer whale at­tack.

at the top of the stairs, one of the newer per­ma­nent ex­hibits, “from pur­suit to preser­va­tion,” shows a full-scale re­lief mu­ral of a whale en­snared in a fish­ing net with the ti­tle “The prob­lem of Ma­rine De­bris.” En­ter­ing the next room in the dis­play, you’re greeted by a record­ing of sperm whale echolo­ca­tion. a full-size whale­boat and the skele­ton of a sperm whale are dis­played side by side, and you can see

they’re roughly the same length. In front of the whale­boat, a do­cent is talk­ing to a group of high school stu­dents about har­poon de­sign. This group from the hen­der­son school in Dorch­ester, Mas­sachusetts, is one of the two school groups vis­it­ing the mu­seum to­day. The other, a fourth grade class from Edgar­town, Mas­sachusetts, has started their field trip with a les­son on whale mi­gra­tion in one of the mul­ti­me­dia class­rooms added in the re­cent ren­o­va­tion.

Even with the mu­seum’s ren­o­vated fa­cil­i­ties and new ex­hibits, a ma­jor high­light re­mains one of its old­est ex­hibits: the half-size replica whal­ing ship Lagoda, do­nated in 1916 by Emily bourne, the daugh­ter of one of the wealth­i­est mer­chants of the era, Jonathan bourne, Jr. ( Lagoda was his fa­vorite—i.e., most prof­itable—boat. I no room in the mu­seum to house such a large ex­hibit? no prob­lem. she do­nated an an­nex to house it as well. and most of the orig­i­nal col­lec­tions were ac­quired from the de­scen­dants of ship own­ers.

our tour of the main mu­seum ends in one of the new­est rooms: the Casa de botes Dis­cov­ery Cen­ter, a col­or­ful in­ter­ac­tive play area. when I re­turn later that af­ter­noon to take pho­tos, the place is empty. per­fect. I hoist the sails, sit in the bright pink azorean whale­boat and move the oars against the oar­locks. There’s even a replica of a fo’c’s’le with bunks and even some blan­kets so kids can lie down in the cramped quar­ters.


when I ask about the evo­lu­tion of the mu­seum, when it started to shift fo­cus from be­ing an old bank build­ing with a col­lec­tion of art and nau­ti­cal ar­ti­facts, both su­san and Tina point to the mu­seum’s new di­rec­tor, James rus­sell, who took the helm (sorry…I in 2PP8. Dur­ing his ten­ure, he has over­seen a ma­jor restora­tion and ren­o­va­tion, and the turn­around of an or­ga­ni­za­tion that had been strug­gling fi­nan­cially.

The whal­ing mu­seum adapts to the needs of to­day’s vis­i­tors, fol­low­ing the re­verse course of its fea­ture ex­hibit. while we as hu­mans are mov­ing from pur­su­ing whales to pre­serv­ing them, we’re also mov­ing from think­ing of his­tory as some­thing that needs to be pre­served—sim­ply dis­play­ing ar­ti­facts for pas­sive con­sump­tion—to some­thing that should be en­gaged with, ques­tioned, pur­sued.

My fa­vorite ex­hibits were in­ter­ac­tive and ed­u­ca­tional but de­cid­edly low-tech. one fea­tured a se­ries of wooden slid­ers that re­vealed step-by-step the ac­count­ing of a sea­man cash­ing out the end of a voy­age to de­ter­mine his “lay” or share of the profit. (spoiler alert: The fi­nal slider re­vealed a share of $1 and noted some­what sar­cas­ti­cally that you were lucky to not come out in debt. I another ex­hibit let you sniff three beakers filled with dif­fer­ent whale oils—and com­pare the brown whale oils to the clear and much more ex­pen­sive sper­ma­ceti. (ap­par­ently whale oil is like vodka, the more you pay for it, the less it smells. I sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing, and math con­cepts are al­ready nat­u­rally a part of the mu­seum and the ma­te­rial high­lighted. In fact, the new play area down­stairs is in essence a col­lec­tion of in­ter­ac­tive dis­plays high­light­ing sTEM con­cepts dis­guised as play struc­tures. There’s a replica cask of whale oil, weighted ap­pro­pri­ately, and two dif­fer­ent ways to hoist it. one is a sim­ple block; the other is a com­plex rig­ging of nearly a dozen. It’s sim­ple

but makes an ef­fec­tive point, whether the hois­ter is a five-year-old, a high school physics stu­dent, or a thirty-some­thing English ma­jor vaguely re­call­ing the con­cept of me­chan­i­cal ad­van­tage.

what im­presses me most about the mu­seum’s ed­u­ca­tional fo­cus is how the pro­grams take a truly mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary ap­proach, con­nect­ing his­tory, lit­er­a­ture, sci­ence, math, and cul­tural stud­ies. The best ex­am­ple of this might be the mu­seum’s ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram, which uses the mu­seum’s re­sources as a train­ing ground for high school stu­dents to re­al­ize their po­ten­tial.


I first find out about the mu­seum’s ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram when we bump into the pro­gram’s dy­namic new di­rec­tor, Christina Turner, a few min­utes into my tour. (we’re still stand­ing be­neath the whale skele­tons.

The com­pet­i­tive three-year pro­gram of­fers lo­cal stu­dents from low-in­come fam­i­lies a unique com­bi­na­tion of col­lege prepa­ra­tion, ex­pe­ri­en­tial ed­u­ca­tion, and job train­ing. En­rolling six stu­dents in grades 11 and 12 in its first co­hort, the ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram, now in its sev­enth year, has 18 stu­dents to­tal—six stu­dents in each grade.

Equip­ping stu­dents with the skills needed to suc­ceed in school is a main goal of the pro­gram—and it does that well. all 5S of the stu­dents who have com­pleted the pro­gram so far have grad­u­ated from high school, and nearly all (94EI have pur­sued se­condary ed­u­ca­tion, whether col­lege, mil­i­tary ser­vice, or pro­fes­sional cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams. un­like many other col­lege prep pro­grams, though, the pro­gram pro­vides stu­dents with a true ap­pren­tice­ship ex­pe­ri­ence—a paid job work­ing in the mu­seum and learn­ing on-the-job skills. To date, more than 2P of the 5S alumni have re­turned to the mu­seum as vol­un­teers, in­terns, or even em­ploy­ees. In fact, seven for­mer ap­pren­tices are cur­rently in­tern­ing or work­ing at the mu­seum.

In some ways it seems like the ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram is the mod­ern way to do what work­ing on a whale­boat did for many young peo­ple in the 19th cen­tury: ex­pose them to new ideas, bring them to­gether around a com­mon goal, and help them re­al­ize their po­ten­tial by giv­ing them real re­spon­si­bil­ity—only, of course, the ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram has re­moved the con­stant risk of death or dis­mem­ber­ment and the ex­ploita­tive la­bor prac­tices.

pro­vid­ing real em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for youth in the pub­lic schools also shows that the mu­seum val­ues com­mu­nity mem­bers as a re­source, and en­gag­ing the lo­cal com­mu­nity does seem to be a gen­uine pri­or­ity. Even the skele­ton of the blue whale hang­ing in the atrium was named by new bed­ford school kids.


af­ter my tour, I walk down the hill to the wa­ter­front. (fun fact: The mu­seum’s quaint ad­dress, Johnny Cake hill, was named for the towns­peo­ple who used to pic­nic up on the hill, pre­sum­ably eat­ing john­ny­cakes, while watch­ing the ships en­ter and leave the port.

Though the city of new bed­ford is no longer the rich­est city in the coun­try as it was in the 19th cen­tury at the peak of the whal­ing era, the port of new bed­ford is cur­rently the most prof­itable com­mer­cial fish­ing port in the united states. scal­lops are the new whale here, and al­most 5P mil­lion pounds of scal­lops are brought in to new bed­ford each year. but to­day is a quiet day in the work­ing port—the ferry ter­mi­nal is de­serted and the scal­lop boats are docked in the well-pro­tected har­bor, be­ly­ing the fact that com­mer­cial fish­ing re­mains one of the most dan­ger­ous jobs to­day. (This fact will not be lost on vis­i­tors to the sea­men’s bethel with its mar­ble memo­ri­als list­ing the cap­tains and crew of too many fish­ing ves­sels lost in re­cent years.

The new bed­ford whal­ing Mu­seum doesn’t sim­ply pre­serve the past nor does it gloss over the in­con­sis­ten­cies and in­equities of our his­tory in pur­suit of a shinier fu­ture. If any­thing, the mu­seum stands firmly in the present—rooted in new bed­ford’s rich mar­itime tra­di­tions and forg­ing true con­nec­tions be­tween the city’s di­verse com­mu­ni­ties. so whether you want to bet­ter un­der­stand life on a whal­ing ship, learn more about the whales them­selves, ex­pe­ri­ence sci­ence dis­guised as a play­ground that’s fun for the whole fam­ily, or see a suc­cess­ful ap­pren­tice­ship model for the mod­ern age in ac­tion, the new bed­ford whal­ing Mu­seum is worth a visit, by land or by sea.

Top: The Sea­men’s Bethel (the ‘ Whale­man’s Chapel’ from Moby-Dick) memo­ri­al­izes sailors lost at sea.

Mid­dle: Kids make the per­fect crew for the half-size Lagoda replica.

Bot­tom: Orig­i­nal whale­boat dis­played next to a sperm whale skele­ton to show scale.

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