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The Eye of the Universe

The Whaling Museum began in the Greek Revival-style industrial building that had been at the center of an oil-processing and candle-producing factory. Originally built in 1847, the firm of Hadwen & Barney purchased the property on Broad St. near New North Wharf (now Steamboat Wharf) in 1848. When the whaling industry failed in 1869, the building remained as a warehouse until the NHA purchased it in 1929 to store whaling artifacts from the donated collection of Minister Edward F. Sanderson. In 1971, with a gift from Admiral William Mayhew Folger, the NHA finished construction of a second, neighboring building at the corner of Broad and North Water streets, named the Peter Foulger Museum. In a major renovation, the NHA combined the two buildings in 2005-2006 to create today’s modern facility, officially titled The Whaling Museum/Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory.   

In terms of Whaling, “All roads lead back to Nantucket,” says NHA Gosnell Executive Director James Russell. “The Whaling industry essentially began here, in 1690, and many inventions began here, from innovations in watercraft to tryworks for rendering oil to insurance practices and syndicates. Whaling was a prototype for venture capital structures today, and the first cartel was the result of a group called Nantucket Spermaceti Trust that was involved in the production of oil candles.” Nantucket’s impacts upon the early US republic are significant, as well. For instance, the island’s Rotch family owned two of the ships involved in the Boston Tea Party, the Beaver and the Dartmouth, and Russell explains that Nantucketers had close connections with founding fathers. Ben Franklin and his cousin Tim Folger were instrumental in charting the Gulf Stream, which, pardon the pun, streamlined trade and travel between the Colonies and Europe. “This early history is an area that I find of great interest,” says Russell. “The further back you go, there’s a dearth of materials and artifacts; the Nantucket Historical Association is strong in this regard, both in the museum and in our research library.”

Pie crimper (jagging wheel) 
Said to have been made by Obed Sandsbury (1817–1902) of Nantucket on a whaling voyage, 1840–44. NHA Purchase, 1910.20.1.

Having served for 10 years as the director of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Russell was a natural choice to come aboard as Gosnell Executive Director of the NHA in the fall of 2017. He continues to work “very collegially” with his former organization, which he recognizes has “a bigger story and deeper connection to whaling; we have no desire to compete or try to replicate that on Nantucket.” Instead, he sees the NHA as a whole, a historical project akin to colonial Williamsburg. “It’s like a string of pearls,” he says, “where one goes from one property to the next.” Although the Whaling Museum is smaller than its sibling on the far side of Buzzards Bay, the flagship of the Nantucket Historical Association offers a collection both impressive and extensive. Since the renovation, the building encompasses a block in the center of town and features a “fully re-articulated sperm whale in Gosnold Hall.” The skeleton is 46 feet in length and was recovered after the tragic death of a whale that washed up on the shore of the island’s Siasconset Beach on New Year’s Day, 1998. For a sense of scale, the museum displays a 28 foot whale boat, an iconic double-ended craft from New Bedford, beneath the skeleton. The museum is accredited by the American Museum Association and is fully climate controlled. Russell says, “Many thousands of artifacts are on view” across a number of exhibitions. 

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