New Bedford Whaling Museum

New Bedford Whaling Museum

New Bedford Whaling Museum
New Bedford Whaling Museum and Harbor
Established 1903
Location 18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, Massachusetts
President James Russell

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is located in New Bedford, Massachusetts, USA. The museum, through its collections and exhibitions, tells the story of the international whaling industry and the history more generally of the "Old Dartmouth" region (now the city of New Bedford and towns of Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven and Westport) situated along the south coast of Massachusetts. Governed by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society (ODHS), the museum collection contains over 750,000 items, including 3,000 pieces of scrimshaw and 2,500 logbooks (handwritten accounts of whaling voyages), both of which are the largest collections in the world.

The Museum also houses an extensive collection of fine art, including works by major American artists who lived or worked in the New Bedford area, such as Albert Bierstadt, William Bradford, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, as well as significant collections of locally produced art, glass, furniture, and other decorative arts that flourished as a result of the wealth that whaling brought to New Bedford in the 19th century.

The whale ship Lagoda, the world's largest ship model, is housed at the central core of the museum in the Jonathan Bourne Building, purpose-built in 1915 for the construction of the Lagoda. With an overall length of 59' and a mainmast 50' in height, the Lagoda is fully rigged and outfitted for an extended whaling voyage. The Whaling Museum complex includes 20 exhibit galleries housed within several contiguous historic buildings occupying an entire city block within New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park.


  • History 1
  • Museum Profile 2
  • Ongoing Exhibits 3
  • Publications 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


On January 7, 1903, Ellis L. Howland, a news reporter for the Evening Standard, presented a paper urging the establishment of a historical society and a museum:

I believe that the need of a historical society arose not recently but generations ago when the history of New Bedford and vicinity commenced. Today we are suffering from the omission and if it is in the least deplorable it will be doubly a breach of our duty toward posterity to allow the lack to exist any longer...True, there are a few old log books stored away in the public library or here and there in the closet of some private collector, but when one contemplates the tons and tons of them that have been ground up into wrapping paper of prosaic fiber wash tubs, the absence of a historical society becomes in our minds almost a crime.[1]

On 22 July 1903, the 100 founding constituents of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society selected William W. Crapo, a local lawyer and congressman, as their President. At first, the museum rented rooms to display and store artifacts from the Masonic Building on the corner of Pleasant and Union street. However, by 1904 their membership had grown to almost 700 people and collections had been expanded to include some 560 artifacts.

In 1906, Henry Huttleston Rogers donated the Bank of Commerce Building on Water Street to the ODHS for the purpose of establishing a museum. Just a year later, the New Bedford Whaling Museum was opened.

The teens and twenties were exciting decades for the New Bedford Whaling Museum. In 1914, the ODHS appointed Frank Wood as the curator and first full-time staff member. A year later, Emily Bourne donated the Bourne Building in memory of her father, Jonathan Bourne Jr. The Bourne Building now houses the Lagoda, a half-sized model of Bourne's whaling ship. In 1922, the famous whaling movie Down to the Sea in Ships was filmed in New Bedford. with young actress Clara Bow and many New Bedford locals dressed up in their grandparents' clothing to fit the scene.

A juvenile blue whale skeleton (KOBO) hanging in the Jacobs Family Gallery at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

By the 1930s, the New Bedford Whaling Museum was attracting four to ten thousand visitors a year, most of whom were from out of town. The museum further expanded at the bequest of the Wood Building by Annie Seabury Wood in 1935. But perhaps the most important addition of the decade was the acquisition of a juvenile humpback whale skeleton, suspended in the Lagoda room. In the words of curator William Tripp:

"We are no longer a whaling museum without a whale, as some in the past have chosen to call us."

New Bedford experienced a bit of the limelight in 1953 when the whaling-inspired film All the Brothers Were Valiant premiered in the city.

The "save-the-whale" movement of the 1970s led John R. Bockstoce, the Curator of Ethnology, to research and compile the most complete data on the Bowhead whale to date, reestablishing the importance of the preservation of historical whaling documents.

In 1996, the NBWM played a large role in establishing a New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, a national park which includes several New Bedford historical sites including the Seamen's Bethel, located across the street from the Whaling Museum. The museum features a twenty-minute short film titled The City that Lit the World courtesy of the National Park Service. 1996 was also the year of the first annual Moby-Dick Marathon Reading.

In 1998, the NBWM collaborated with the Azorean Maritime Heritage Society and built the Azorean Whaleman Gallery, an exhibition devoted to the contributions of Azorean sailors and whaleboat builders to U.S. whaling history. In August 2000, the Jacobs Family Gallery was built thanks to the donation of Irwin and Joan Jacobs. A new blue whale skeleton, named KOBO (King of the Blue Ocean) was suspended from the ceiling.

In 2001, the Kendall Whaling Museum merged with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, an acquisition of some 70,000 artifacts, effectively doubling the size of collections. To accommodate all these artifacts, the NBWM acquired the former bank building located Purchase Street, three blocks west of the museum campus on Johnny Cake Hill. The Purchase Street Building currently houses the museum's Research Library.[2]

In 2002, the New Bedford Whaling Museum partnered with the Melville Society, and now houses their extensive Melville collection in the Research Library.

On 22 September 2008, James P. Russell assumed the position of President and CEO of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.[3]

Museum Profile

Visitors to the museum are invited to voyage around the world during the Golden Age of Sail when New Bedford's whaling fleet circled the globe to hunt the giants of the deep for whale oil to light the lamps of the world and lubricate the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. This 110-year old institution, which was founded by the whaling families of the greater New Bedford area, is now the world's largest and most comprehensive museum devoted to the global story of whales, whaling and the history of Massachusetts' south coast region. Visitors travel through 200+ years of pursuit and learn about the preservation efforts of today. The museum's main campus encompasses a city block overlooking historic New Bedford harbor. Its 20 galleries of maritime art and science exhibits include five complete whale skeletons and the world’s largest ship model, Lagoda, which visitors may climb aboard. Galleries include the world's largest exhibit of scrimshaw - shipboard art of the whalers. An observation deck offers the best views of New Bedford's busy working waterfront, America's #1 commercial fishing port. The Museum's Cook Memorial Theater displays films related to its collection, whaling, regional history and commercial fishing, which run continuously. The Museum's Research Library attracts scholars from around the world and is open by appointment. The Museum Store offers a comprehensive inventory of books on maritime, whaling, and local history topics, as well as unique gifts related to the collection.

Much of the permanent exhibits collection focuses on whaling; the museum’s roots as the Old Dartmouth Historical Society remain a vibrant part of its operations and programming. In addition to whaling, painting, furniture, and other fine and decorative arts are also featured. An extensive display of decorative and functional glass from famed local glass-makers Pairpoint and Mt. Washington Glass as well as hundreds of paintings by local artists, (both renowned masters and lesser known locals) are represented. The core exhibition “From Pursuit to Preservation: the Global Story of Whales & Whaling” invites patrons to consider the environmental, economic and social impact whaling has had on the world.

Ongoing Exhibits

Azorean Whaleman Gallery The only permanent exhibition space in the United States that honors the Portuguese people and their significant contributions to this country’s maritime heritage, this permanent installation explores the Azorean impact on the growth and development of Southern New England and of New Bedford in particular, which is home to a vibrant Azorean community. The exhibit contains many artifacts related to whaling in the Azores and the islanders' journey to a new life in America via a "bridge of whale ships." The exhibit features a half-scale model of an Azorean Whaleboat and a "Vigia," an Azorean whaling lookout.

Skeletons of the Deep The Museum is host to five fully articulated whale skeletons, including a rare fetal skeleton of the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. Each of the specimens on exhibit came from animals that either died accidentally, or by undetermined circumstances and not a result of whaling, which the Museum does not condone, with the exception of limited subsistence practices of aboriginal populations as identified by the International Whaling Commission.

Harbor Hope in Old Dartmouth, 1602-1827 This exhibition explores the region of Old Dartmouth from the 1602 landing of English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold to the dominance of New Bedford in the whaling industry, and explores key themes related to religion, geography and maritime commerce, which combined to powerfully influence Southeastern Massachusetts’ colonial growth and the ultimate success of the port of New Bedford, surpassing the Nantucket circa 1827 as America's largest whaling center.


Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill. A magazine published triannually by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and distributed as one of the benefits of membership. Topics: Whaling history, local history, marine and landscape painting, decorative arts, exhibitions, lectures.

Blanchette, David. (2013). Xico: A Boy, A Rat, and a Whaleship. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Blasdale, Mary Jean. (2012). American Landscape and Seascape Paintings. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Frank, Stuart M. (2012). Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Boston, Massachusetts: David R. Godine in association with the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Kauppila, Keith (2014). Benjamin Russell: Whaleman-Artist, Entrepreneur. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Kugler Richard C. (1975). New Bedford and Old Dartmouth: A Portrait of the Region’s Past. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Kugler, Richard. C. (1978). William Allen Wall: An Artist of New Bedford. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Lapides, Michael. (2013). The Artic Regions: Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition to Greenland by William Bradford. Boston, Massachusetts: David R. Godine in association with the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Lund, Judith N., et al. (2010). American Offshore Whaling Voyages, 1667-1927, Vol. I and II. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Lund, Judith N.; Wall, R. Michael. (2013). Ship Models: Art and Artifacts from the New Bedford Whaling Museum. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Monica, Maria F. (2013). The Dabneys: A Bostonian Family in the Azores, 1806-1871. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Luso-American Development Foundation in cooperation with the Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Old Dartmouth Historical Society Sketches. (1903 to 1994). Topics related to the history of Southeastern Massachusetts by various authors. New Bedford, Massachusetts: Old Dartmouth Historical Society–New Bedford Whaling Museum.

See also


  1. ^ ODHS Scrapbook Collection, "Historical Society Advised", 17 Jan. 1903
  2. ^ Information derived from Exhibition materials within NBWM (October, 2008)
  3. ^ NBWM Press Release, "New Bedford Whaling Museum Names New President", 19 Sep. 2008.[1]

External links

  • Official website

  • David R. Godine, Publisher