My friend Regan recently did what we call cultural or historical tourism because, in her words, “I’d never been there. I just went along for the ride. Just an experience.” She’s talking about the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. Moby Dick didn’t really come up despite her English degree when Regan and her husband Lance went to Nantucket with another couple who has an organization called Phoenix Swords, which does historical reenactment, with swords! Since Lance does 18th century reenactment, they all had common interests in history and travel, and fun, thus, the Whaling Museum.
“They do a really good job of explaining the people and place around it, acknowledging whaling as a practice in the region historically,” Regan explained. This is similar to how genealogists keep the focus regarding less savory historical events on the time and the place while acknowledging that these things happened. “It was highly informative. I didn’t know that people hunted sperm whales for the goo in their head for candles.”
Regan went on to describe the beautiful building the museum is housed in where a sperm whale skeleton hangs in the first gallery. At first, Regan thought the skeleton was connected to whaling, which she finds distasteful, but apparently, that whale had beached itself and despite best efforts by the community, died. In fact, the community was so upset that they all paid for an autopsy. The cause of death turned out to be natural causes, and in the end, all the parts of the whale were used for the museum.
“All of the head goo is in these antique bottles that had historically been used for that purpose. And there was an oceanographic group that studied the whale and it became an educational thing. That was the vibe of the museum, that they don’t love that whales were hunted, but it is part of the history, and knowing this is important.” Other features include a clock built into the museum building, and an interactive lighthouse window. There is a roof garden that serves as a community meeting place.
How can a visit to the gallery help your family research? Get out that box of old family treasures and take a look. Many knickknacks and other tools and implements in the colonial period had scrimshaw detail. And just about everyone in Massachusetts had whalebone yarn swifts. They had knitting needles, baskets, an array of hair combs, all made out of whale bone.