New England debatably being the the heart of the American whaling industry, there was no way I could pass up stopping at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, though if I were any of you with an interest in American history and the artifacts that come from it, I would devote a few hours to this museum as it contains a vast amount of information.
From the get go, visitors are greeted by quotes out of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” as Ishmael sets off on the Pequod from New Bedford. Just beyond are the massive skeletons of four whales hovering above. As you traverse the railings leading upstairs you are entreated to the story of these animals and factoids about the whale species represented up there. Progressing through the building, visitors encounter exhibits which take the viewer through a trip to whaling’s beginnings from the sustenance hunts of Alaska Natives, to the whaling industry in full swing, along with the weapons of war. The exhibits do a fine job of explaining why whaling was so profitable by displaying many examples of products produced from whales, from corsets propped up with baleen to meat and grease.
Other exhibits show the tools of the trade, photographs of whalers conducting their business, ships, paintings, videos, and artifacts right down to a Gilbert Island Sharktooth sword (!!!). The museum also touches whaling from a multicultural perspective, featuring a great deal of information on whaling as it applied to the Azore, Japanese, Alaska Natives and more. The museum also touches on the relationship between scrimshaw and whaling, and comes full circle with a discussion on preservation and research of whale species, which like most of oceanic life, we know only a fraction about.
The museum also boasts two other exhibits dedicated to New Bedford artists and their work during their travels. Again, my party of 4.5 walked the halls of the museum for at least an hour an a half and found it impossible to take in everything with the time we alloted ourselves.
The same could be said of our next stop, the Fort Rodman/Fort Tabor Military Museum. Housed in what used to be the Post Exchange (think a military base’s mall or shopping place), the free to enter-donations accepted establishment is manned by willing and able veterans of our Armed Services ready to set the stage for the flow of the museum. Beginning with a diorama of the fort and it’s humble origins (the protection of American whaling vessels and designed by Robert E. Lee,) the museum takes visitors through a tightly packed, exceptionally thorough tour of the fort’s past beginning with the Revolutionary War and progressing into the military roots of New Bedford, Massachusetts and those who served from the area in the World Wars to present.
Again, tons and tons of artifacts, pictures, insignia, maps, military orders, newspaper clippings and more, so much so that one could miss whole sections of historical memorabilia if one forgot to turn around. Outside the museum building lie several small monuments to the casualties of the wars of the 20th century, along with a tank commemorating the casualties of Operation Tiger (a mission designed to train our soldiers for the D-Day invasion) and the actual fort itself, which sadly is not open due to safety concerns as the site runs off donations and volunteers.
Two excellent museums in one day: the time we allotted for each did not do them justice, yet I stand impressed. Our time spent at each was rushed, and in hindsight, a day could have been made of each location separately. The Whaling Museum is definitely kid friendly, while the Military Museum is kid (and adult) protected via plexiglass cases. If your travels ever take you to New Bedford, I highly recommend both institutions.
PS: The Whaling Museum is located on the same street as the chapel described in Moby Dick. So cool.