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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
to More Antiques to View
Next Article >