‘Go a-whaling I must and I would’: Life Aboard a New Bedford Whaling Vessel

Bourne Building
Exhibition opened: June 23, 2012

So, you think you want a job whaling, do you?  This exhibition  presents whaling from the perspective of a new recruit.  From your first encounter with whaling agent Jonathan Bourne (1811-1889) to your voyage’s end and your payout at the conclusion of the exhibit (and an imagined two-year voyage between) you’ll encounter the men, materials, and activities aboard a typical whaling vessel like our iconic half-scale Lagoda

Hoisting boat into place, photograph by Clifford W. Ashley


Drawing from the Museum’s immense and unique collections of artifacts and documents, the exhibition demonstrates the thrills and dangers of going to sea to do battle with the world’s largest animals.  From “Thar she blows!” to “Homeward Bound”, all of the hard work, skill, and bravery required by a New Bedford whaler comes to life!

You will begin by meeting Jonathan Bourne in his Counting House office, his desk rife with correspondence and account-books.  Bourne’s recreated voice will greet you and sign you aboard Lagoda, his favorite vessel of his whaling fleet.  Material from real Bourne letters are knitted together into a fascinating audible narrative about the role of the Agent and the complexity of managing an international business in the mid-19th century and a crew that traveled the globe. 

Using dynamic displays that highlight the drama of the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” “A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat” and “Cutting-In,” giving a real sense of scale to this monumental enterprise, whaling is interpreted with all it’s power to capture the imagination.

Whaling had periods of excitement upon which this mystique has formed.  Processing the blubber of a single whale took one to three days and our collection is rich with the artifacts of this laborious process. Cutting spades, blubber hooks, boarding and mincing knives, pikes, trypots, bailers, strainers, and casks illustrate the different jobs assigned onboard once a whale was caught.

Finally, once the hold contained enough full casks of oil the Captain would declare that the vessel had “made  a voyage,” and it was time to return to home port.  Once there the cargo was off-loaded, tested and graded, and sold.   After years away how much would you be paid?  How about Jonathan Bourne who you met at the outset?  You might be surprised what your final take will be.

So you want to “Go a whalin’” do you?  Learn what it was really all about.