From Pursuit to Preservation
Learn about the Museum’s Whales Today Exhibition.
From Pursuit to Preservation: The History of Human Interaction with Whales explained and explored the human fascination with whales and the history of whaling in New Bedford in a global context.
This comprehensive multimedia presentation, developed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, ECHO (Education Through Cultural and Historical Organizations) funding, and the generous contributions of Museum supporters, formed a new focal point for visitors experiencing the Whaling Museum. From Pursuit to Preservation guided visitors through the story of humankind’s evolving relationship with whales, from the whale as a source of survival and symbolic power, through to its exploitation for commercial wealth, to the first groupings toward of scientific inquiry and contemporary methods of observation and study.
From ancient times, people have used the meat, oil, and bone of whales as important resources for their communities. The whale’s importance to humans’ physical well-being often fostered a symbolic cultural connection, a relationship that took many forms throughout the centuries and continues to evolve in contemporary art, literature, and popular culture. In From Pursuit to Preservation, the Whaling Museum took visitors on a journey across time and around the world, using many items from its vast collection including unique maritime artifacts and art, photographs and whale skeletons as well as a listening station, digital picture frames, and thought-provoking interpretive signs to involve visitors in the discovery of the symbolic, spiritual and cultural connections we share with these majestic and increasingly endangered animals.
Humans’ complex relationship with whales is told from the early harvesting of beached whales to the development of watercraft and weapons specifically to pursue the animals at sea. Once demand grew, an industry was born to hunt and process whales for the oil that would light the world for three centuries and the baleen that was the plastic of that age. While the Dutch and English led the way in the creation of this industry, by the early 19th century, the United States, led by New Bedford, had the most productive whaling industry in the world. As the success of the industry began to threaten the survival of whales, new technologies made their oil less vital. And while whaling left New Bedford, the pursuit of whales continued in Europe and Asia at new levels of efficient slaughter hunting that enabled the harvest in one year to outstrip that of the previous decade in total. The move toward preserving whales came as humans hunters became so good at killing that international regulation was needed to keep whales from extermination.
Visitors to this New Bedford Whaling Museum exhibition came away with a new concept of the power of the whale in the human imagination — representing nature’s power, the lure of the unknown, a monstrous foe, and a once abundant resource. And the Whaling Museum exhibition also created a bridge of understanding about how the whale has come now to symbolize our emerging understanding of our place in the natural world and how profound our impact upon it can be. Our hunt now is for knowledge: the better to apply the lessons of the past to the challenges of the future.
The museum gratefully acknowledges the following people and organizations who contributed expertise, photographs, audio files, time, and energy to this exhibition:
The Whale Center of New England
Major support for this exhibition came from