New Bedford Whaling Museum

 

The Museum which houses the world’s preeminent collection of whaling art and history, was founded as the Old Dartmouth Historical Society at New Bedford, Massachusetts, in1903. Its holdings, about 195,000 objects, represent a diverse array of cultures and peoples from ancient prehistory to the present, encompassing the seven seas andall seven continents: European, American, and non-Western paintings, drawings, and prints, as well as whaling gear, tools, ship models, navigation instruments,watercraft, maps, nautical charts, ships’ plans, and whalers’ occupational art. Its outstanding art collections include prints from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries;Dutch and Flemish old master paintings; British and American paintings and drawings; Japanese scrolls; Pacific, Arctic, and Northwest Coast Indian ethnology; AfricanAmerican whaling history; and whalemen’s scrimshaw. The museum’s library, with its 50,000 titles from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries, holds acomprehensive array of books and treatises on whales, whaling, natural history, and voyages of exploration; about 300,000 manuscripts; approximately 50,000 photographs; and the libraries of the New Bedford Port Society, Joshua Slocum Society, and Herman Melville Society. The museum is also the repository for fine arts,decorative arts, furniture, art glass, and archival materials significant to the industries, trades, and social history of a region distinguished for Native-Americanentrepreneurial enterprise as well as a heritage of abolitionism, Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigration, textile and glass manufacture, and fishing.Of particular interest are the museum’s extensive holdings of American vernacular and occupational art. In addition to its definitive collections of scrimshaw andwhaling photographs, dating from about 1850 to the present, many of the museum’s 2,300 shipboard whaling journals contain drawings and watercolors by whalemenand whaling wives, including landscapes, portraits, caricatures, ship portraits, and recognition views; whaling and naval subjects; the flora and fauna of foreign seas andexotic landfalls; and interesting calligraphic specimens. The library’s collection also includes original poetry, song lyrics, travel narratives, and didactic essays.The museum’s origins can be traced to 1847, when merchant Jonathan Bourne began managing his whaling empire from Merrill’s Wharf—one of several consortia,each comprising an integrated galaxy of merchants and tradesmen engaged in outfitting, provisioning, equipping, and managing whaling vessels. Bourne’s confidentialclerk and executor, Benjamin Baker, was also a collector, of whaling relics, papers, and (remarkably) oral-history interviews, conducted decades before oral historyand folklore field collecting became fashionable. His gleanings formed the core of the museum’s collection; subsidies from Bourne’s heirs fueled its progress. The NewBedford Whaling Museum long held the largest American whaling collection when, in 2001, the vast international art and history holdings of the Kendall Collection(founded in 1899) and former Kendall Whaling Museum (founded in 1955 at Sharon, Massachusetts) were gifted and assimilated, and the Kendall Institute was founded as the museum’s library and research division.

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