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The Eye of the Universe

Engraved panbone, ca. 1830
Unknown English artist
Whale bone and ink; 39 5/8 x 14 1/2 x 6 in. 
Acquired in trade from David Gray, 1956.3.1. 

Imagine a world in which the wealth of the richest towns and cities revolves around the pursuit and hunting of giant, living creatures. Ships set forth on voyages lasting for three or four years in hopes of making lucrative turns on the investments of stockholders who anxiously monitor storms, reports of wrecks, and forecasts pertaining to the migrations of the giant animals, many of which are over 50 feet in length and can weigh over 50 tons. Imagine that a frightened or wounded creature could turn and stove in the side of a ship and send 30 souls to their deaths; or it could capsize a smaller hunting vessel at the flip of its massive tail. Suppose that demand for the various products derived from these living resources is high, permeating all levels of global society. The culture that would arise from this industry would be far-reaching and multi-faceted. Tales of heroism and barbarism would profligate; myths of individual, almost supernatural creatures, would blossom and pollinate the imaginations of average people, and scenes of the voyages and of the hunt would ordain the walls and screens of homes both simple and grand. Successful captains would occupy positions of status, yet would also be looked upon with fear and awe. Townsfolk would whisper gossip about the scars on hunters’ faces, or make commentary about their tattoos or amputated appendages. Entire class systems would develop around the hunters and their moneyed investors, subsets of people set apart from ordinary folk, distilled in adventure, steeped in exotic mystery. Architecture and design would evolve as the hunters and captains returned with new ideas from distant lands, with items foreign and appealing to the eye, with souvenirs grotesque and disturbing.

It’s easy to imagine such a world in the context of a science fiction story. One could see a television series devoted to such a culture, one that takes the human race into its next “giant leap” forward. As companies such as Space X launch rockets towards Mars, and as the International Space Station becomes something that society seems to take for granted, the concept of a new industry built upon the backs of hunters and explorers voyaging for years at a time seems only slightly futuristic—a reality that one could envision taking shape within the next 50 years, even. And this makes all the more unfathomable the actuality that this very type of society has already existed, to butcher the famous opening crawl of Star Wars: “Not such a long, long time ago, in our very own galaxy.” 

Oval Lightship Basket Purse with Whales, 1957
Jose Formoso Reyes (1902-80) and Aletha Macy (1901-71)
Cane, rattan, walnut, ivory, brass, 61/2” x 11 ½” x 8 ½” 
Bequest of Eleanor Ham, 1979.22.34. 

Perhaps even more mind-boggling than the notion that the world turned around the hunting of living behemoths is the fact that the initial epicenter of this exotic galaxy was an island of only 105 square miles, just off the coast of Cape Cod—Nantucket. For a while New Bedford would grow to become the largest whaling city in this bygone era, the industry and its culture began on this sandspit. Whaling, as an industry, and as a cultural phenomenon, long ago joined the city-state of Atlantis somewhere beneath the waves, but thanks to the commitment of generations of townspeople, the village of Nantucket has been able to preserve remnants of this lost world; at the forefront of these efforts has been the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA), which has worked since 1894 to this end. The NHA owns and/or maintains 24 properties on the island, including the Quaker Meeting House, the Old Mill, and the “Oldest House,” which was built circa 1686 and named for Jethro Coffin. In its 126 years, the NHA has accrued a comprehensive collection of well over 15,000 artifacts. It also operates a research library for scholars and historians who seek deeper understanding of not only the island and its past but of the early years of the United States as a whole. The cornerstone of the Nantucket Historical Society, however, is the Whaling Museum

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