Scrimshaw: Shipboard Art of the Whalers
Exhibition opened May 13th, 2012
Installed in the Museum mid-May, this is a sumptuous “permanent” exhibition of the best, most representative, and most compelling curiosities of our vast scrimshaw holdings — a generous selection drawn from the world’s largest and greatest collection. The exhibition is the partial result of 25+ years of cataloguing and research.
In conjunction with this exhibition, the Museum has published a catalogue of our collection, entitled Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, by Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D., Senior Curator.
Sperm whaling scene on a sperm whale panbone plague engraved by British whaleship surgeon William L. Roderick, circa 1840s. (#1959.08.33)
The catalogue provides deep background, a comprehensive history and overview of the scrimshaw genre, and a treasure-trove of 700+ full-color illustrations, to take its place alongside Flayderman’s classic Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders as an indispensable reference guide to the unique and curiously compelling art of the whalers.
The exhibition presents the scrimshaw itself in all its unique and occupationally rooted glory. Many of the pieces are on exhibit for the first time; many others have not been on public display for decades. The exhibition also shows some of the pictorial sources of the whalers’ work; it traces such topical themes as symbolic patriotic figures, American naval prowess, portraiture, fashion plates, ethnic diversity, the Napoleonic mystique, and the whale hunt itself; it features works by English, Scottish, Azorean, Cape Verdean, African-American, Continental European, Eskimo, Pacific Islander, and Japanese practitioners; and it illustrates some of the tools and mainstream methods of engraving ivory and bone, and constructing “built” scrimshaw at sea.
Scrimshandering, as the whalemen called it — making scrimshaw — was an indigenous and exclusive shipboard art of the deepwater trades, practiced mostly by whalers but also occasionally by navy tars and merchant seamen. The whalemen’s practice of engraving pictures on whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen, and skeletal bone originated in the late Colonial era, almost precisely coevally with the beginnings of whaling out of New Bedford; it matured in the 1820s and ’30s, as New Bedford itself ascended to dominate whaling worldwide; it continued well into the 20th century, right up to the collapse of conventional hand-whaling on sailing ships and rowboats; and, reborn among the “modern” whalers on mechanized floating-factory whaleships and shore stations, it persisted throughout most of the 20th century. A significant majority of the pieces on exhibit — pictorial sperm whale teeth, walrus tusks, swifts, canes, corset busks, watch hutches, birdcages, pie crimpers, and various tools and domestic implements for the sewing room and the kitchen — had their genesis aboard whaleships from the New Bedford Port District. But, uniquely, the exhibition also includes scrimshaw precursors — extraordinarily rare ornamented implements of skeletal bone from the Viking Era of medieval Norway, and baleen objects from the Arctic whale fishery of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age — as well as noteworthy productions by foreign and immigrant practitioners from every quarter of “the terraqueous globe” (to borrow Melville’s words), and the world’s only significant collections of British scrimshaw and scrimshaw from the modern, 20th-century factory-ship era.
Thus, in addition to its substantial curiosity value and intrinsic aesthetic appeal, scrimshaw provides a uniquely revealing window on the shipboard diversions, priorities, and concerns of mainstream mariners on Yankee whaleships in the Age of Sail, encompassing the many polyglot peoples worldwide with whom the whalemen-adventurers came into contact during New Bedford’s palmy seafaring epoch, and reflecting the industrial might and sentimental nostalgia of the generations that followed, during the decline of hand-whaling and the rise and florescence of its modern, mechanized successor. The size, breadth, and diversity of our extraordinary collection render it uniquely suited to take on such a very broad scope of exhibiting and accounting for what has been called an indigenous American folk art, and what was certainly an enthusiastic and nearly universal pastime among our whaling forebears in sailing-ship days.
Lead sponsors of the scrimshaw exhibition and catalogue include the William M. Wood Foundation, the Kenneth T. & Mildred S. Gammons Charitable Foundation, Max N. Berry, Ernest M. Helides and Georgia P. Gosnell.