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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

A Whale of a Museum
by Bob Brooke

Back in the first half of the 19th century, the little island of Nantucket was the center of a global whaling empire. Whaling captains and their crews made this happen through skill, cunning, and shear determination. The growing demand for whale oil fueled the growth of the whaling industry on Nantucket.

Through all the years that whalers sailed the seas, a huge number of pieces of equipment, personal possessions, and art in the form of scrimshaw accumulated. Today, the Nantucket Whaling Museum is one of the top conservators of a rich collection of items that tell the story of not only the processing of whaling products but the sometimes horrific lives at sea of the whalers themselves.

At the center of the museum’s story is the a family of Nantucket Quakers named Starbuck, whose members largely built and ruled the whaling industry on the island for decades.

When Ichabod Paddock arranged to bring his whaling expertise to Nantucket in 1690, the islanders were aware of the potential of whaling as a capital enterprise. Though whaling began as an alongshore business and continued that way until the 1760s, it soon became apparent to the islanders that greater fortunes were to be made on the open sea. Everyone on the island became involved in whaling from young boys to grown men and the women they left behind while on their long voyages.

Even those Nantucketers who weren’t directly involved in hunting and processing the whales or investing in voyages found ways of making money from whaling. Shipbuilding, cooperage, cordage, and other ancillary industries flourished on the island. All of these have a story to tell and the Nantucket Whaling Museum tells it well.

In the years before the American Revolution, Nantucket had 158 whaling ships combing the far Atlantic Ocean. By the turn of the 19th century, the island’s ships began sailing into the far Pacific on voyages lasting as long as four years. And in the process, ship’s captains and crews brought back exotic souvenirs for their loved ones. In 1830, the value of Nantucket’s whaling-related imports exceeded a million dollars. By the 1840s, Nantucket mariners had charted over 200 islands previously unknown to Western sailors. They discovered cultures they could neither fathom nor even fully describe.

The rich heritage of Nantucket’s whaling industry comes to life in the Nantucket Whaling Museum, owned and operated by the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA), through galleries overflowing with revered artifacts. Founded over 75 years ago, it’s a must-see experience.

The Nantucket Whaling Museum contains over 30,000 artifacts, representing many facets of Nantucket's history, including whaling, land and sea transportation, Quaker religion, fine and decorative arts, farming, commerce, and architecture. The museum’s holdings encompass all media, including textiles, glass, wood, metals, works on paper, paintings, and whale ivory. The NHA's collection also includes over 700 paintings, almost 800 prints and drawings, 150 baskets, 400 lighting devices, 800 pieces of scrimshaw, over 2,500 whaling tools and implements, over 6,000 pieces of furniture and decorative arts, and the complete skeletons of a 40- foot Finback and a 47-foot Sperm whale.

The museum’s galleries spread through several buildings. Its main building is a former candle factory, rebuilt by the Mitchell family immediately following Nantucket's Great Fire in 1846, close to the end of the island's whaling era. Less than two years later, island businessmen William Hadwen and Nathaniel Barney purchased the factory and continued to operate it as a candleworks until the end of whaling in the 1860s. It then served as a warehouse until its conversion into the offices of the New England Steamship Company in the 1870s. In 1919, another owner outfitted the candleworks to use for storage and an antiques shop. In 1929, the NHA purchased the building and converted into the Whaling Museum.

In October 2003, the NHA broke ground to restore the former candle factory and build new exhibition space. Part of the candleworks restoration was the uncovering of the factory's original beam press—a three-story wooden press that stretches across the width of the factory—and the brick-based foundation of the building's original tryworks, which had been used to refine spermaceti (whale) oil.

The NHA also renovated the former Peter Foulger Museum to house a large, fully climate-controlled gallery space for displays of artifacts and paintings from the NHA’s collection and temporary loan exhibitions from other museums.

The largest of the galleries in the Whaling Museum is Gosnell Hall. Here stands the fill-size skeleton of a sperm whale, juxtaposed with a fully rigged whaleboat, surrounded by whaling tools, and portraits of whaling captains.

The Whaling Museum also contains galleries designed to display some of the NHA’s most revered objects, including its world-famous collection of scrimshaw, Nantucket lightship baskets, needlework samplers, furniture, sailors’ valentines, and Native American artifacts. The 1850 Fresnel lens from a Nantucket lighthouse and the original 1881 town clock mechanism, restored to working order, are also installed in the building.

Museum hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., Thursday evenings until 9 P.M., and Sunday, Noon to 5 P.M. Admission is $15 for adults and $8 for youth ages 6 to 17.

Read more about whaling memorabilia.

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